The two most powerful men in the General Assembly are promising to pass a bill next year stripping parental rights from rapists, adding strong allies to legislation that has died nine times before.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller announced on Facebook that he would join as a co-sponsor and introduce the legislation as Senate Bill 2 when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. “Senate Democratic leadership is going to make clear this a priority,” Miller said, adding that “we can make sure victims of rape are protected and not forced to co-parent with their rapists.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who had long advocated the policy, announced at the close of the General Assembly session that he would co-sponsor the bill and introduce it as House Bill 1.
Maryland is among six states without any law on the books to let rape victims terminate an attacker’s parental rights when a child is conceived by rape.
The two chambers approved differing versions of the legislation last year, but the negotiating committee failed to reach a compromise before time expired in the annual 90-day session.
“The community uprising, from media attention, after this bill failed last year was just amazing,” said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, who has sponsored the bill for more than a decade.
She said she and sexual assault advocates spent the summer crafting a compromise she thinks will pass.
“We are hopeful that there would be early hearings and we could just get this done,” Dumais said. “I think we have finally gotten the message across that the bill represents a fair process for a woman who has become pregnant as the result of rape to request relief from the court.”
Sen. Brian J. Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version, said he believes objections from members of his chamber, who were concerned about some of the details in the bill, have been resolved.
“It’s high-priority bills for both chambers," he said. “I think you can say the likelihood of passage is very high.”
As proposed, Maryland’s law would allow rape victims to ask a court to terminate parental rights, even if their attacker had never been convicted.
Instead, a woman would need to provide “clear and convincing” evidence a rape had occurred — a lower standard of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold required in criminal cases. More than two dozen states have similar laws.
Lawmakers disagreed about some provisions of the previous bill that would have required rape victims’ names to be published in a newspaper and would have allowed children conceived during rape to terminate the rights of the attacker without the rape victim’s consent. There was also debate about how to best handle cases when the victim does not know the rapist’s identity.
The bills for the coming session are still being drafted and will address those concerns, lawmakers said.
Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she hoped the new version allayed concerns, but cautioned that “it’s not over until it’s over.”
“I think there was a deep-seated mistrust and concern that women would lie,” Jordan said to explain why Maryland has been debating this issue for so long. “And while the vast majority of the legislature did not feel that way, supported the bill and advocated for the bill, there were some members who had those concerns and prevented the bill from passing.”