More than a decade after advocates began the battle, legislation that would let rape victims terminate the parental rights of their assailants is on the verge of final passage.
The Senate passed the bill 45-0 on Tuesday morning. Minutes earlier, the House gave unanimous initial approval to an identical bill without discussion or debate.
“It’s been debated long enough,” the bill’s main sponsor, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, said.
Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, has pushed the legislation since 2007. She expects the bill to sail through the House without discussion Wednesday, since all but one of the chamber’s 141 members have cosponsored it.
“It’s been such a long, hard-fought battle,” she said. “It’s time to just do it. … Let’s get it on the books.”
Once approved by both chambers, it will go to Gov. Larry Hogan for his promised signature.
Maryland is among six states with no laws on the books to let victims terminate an attacker’s parental rights when a child is conceived by rape.
Supporters expect fewer than 10 women each year to use the law, but see its impending passage as a long-overdue statement that Maryland supports rape victims.
In previous years, the legislation has frequently languished in the House Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers were undecided on how to fairly revoke parental rights of fathers who had been accused but not criminally convicted of rape.
Lawmakers have agreed that convicted rapists should not have the right to parent a child conceived during the crime, but advocates for sexual assault victims argued that requiring a criminal conviction would help few victims.
Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that based on U.S. Department of Justice statistics, fewer than 3.5 percent of rapes result in conviction.
Meanwhile, citing a nationwide study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Jordan said 5 percent of rape victims of reproductive age become pregnant in the attack. Of those who conceive a child with their assailant, about a third raise the child. Half terminate the pregnancy and 6 percent put the child up for adoption.
Rape victims in Maryland who did not want to raise the child were left with two choices: abortion or persuading their attackers to sign off on an adoption.
The legislation swiftly advancing in the General Assembly would allow a rape victim who became pregnant to ask a court to terminate her assailant’s rights if she can provide “clear and convincing proof” that the father committed a rape. That standard of proof is lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold required for criminal convictions.
Democrat Del. Curtis S. Anderson, chair of Baltimore’s House delegation, said Tuesday he was among the House Judiciary Committee members who have held up the bill over concerns about whether the lower burden of proof was fair. But Anderson, a criminal defense attorney, said sexual assault survivors and their advocates have persuaded him over the years that requiring the higher standard wouldn’t solve the problem facing women whose children were conceived in rape.
The Maryland Senate had unanimously approved the legislation for years until 2016, the same year the legislation finally moved out of committee in the House.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who became chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee in 2015, said he is sorry the bill has taken so long to get to the threshold of final passage. He said this legislation is more complicated than it seems.
“It doesn’t require that the rapist ever be charged with rape,” he said. “This is a private lawsuit.”
Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the legislature might still have to follow up the bill with some other legislation. Among other things, he said, he’d like to see protections added so that women bringing complaints against accused rapists have some protections against having their sexual histories brought up in court.
Others expect future debate over whether a mother should be given the option to seek child support from her assailant. Senators had debated the provision in committee and on the Senate floor last week, narrowly rejecting a push to amend the legislation.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the bill’s proponents have learned from past legislative failures, and that leaving out the child support element helped clear the way for passage.
“The House never had it in their bill and it was a major sticking point,” he said.
Jordan, of the coalition against sexual assault, said she is pleased to see the Senate pass the bill and is looking forward to the House’s following suit Wednesday.
“We have clients we’re working with now and hope to be able to help them with Maryland’s law,” she said. “It’s long past time to pass this bill. There’s no bill in Annapolis that has ever passed that is perfect.”
The initiative passed both chambers in different forms last year, but died in the final hours of the General Assembly session when lawmakers could not agree on a compromise.
The long-failed effort drew national attention because the bill’s collapse was led by an all-male negotiating team.
This fall, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch pledged to make sure the bill passed. They made it a top priority, labeling it as House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2 and giving it public hearings early in the 90-day legislative session, so that if a conference committee was needed to work out any differences the group would have plenty of time.
“I don’t think any woman should have to go through parental custody sharing with someone raped her,” Busch said Tuesday.