ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — More than 10 years after supporters began pushing for it, Maryland's legislature has decided — with unanimous votes in the Senate and House — to enable impregnated rape victims to ask judges to end the parental rights of their rapists.
Supporters say it has become embarrassing that a state known for its progressive politics is one of the last to adopt such a law. They also credit a growing sense of female empowerment for making the issue a priority.
"I think we were moving in the direction of getting done this year, period, but I think the #MeToo movement certainly helped," said Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Democrat who practices family law.
All 188 seats in the General Assembly, where senators and delegates serve simultaneous four-year terms, are on November's ballot. So is the governor's office. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, expressed early support and noted during his State of the State speech last week that he would sign it.
Crafted as an emergency bill, it will take effect with his signature, potentially within days. Both chambers passed identical bills, but they still need to take a final technical vote to send the legislation to the governor's desk. No obstacles are seen to final passage.
"Ten years is a milestone number," said Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat, adding: "The fact that it's an election year, I think, can't be minimized."
The measure will enable a woman who becomes pregnant by her assailant to ask a court to end the attacker's parental rights. The woman must provide "clear and convincing" proof that the man raped her. That is lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold needed for criminal convictions, and some civil liberties-minded lawmakers had opposed the idea for years to avoid revoking the rights of people who have not been criminally convicted.
Dumais said the delay in getting the measure approved was partly because there haven't been enough women on the House and Senate judicial committees. Women lawmakers now comprise 32 percent of Maryland's legislature, ranking 10th in the nation for female participation, and have never held more than 36 percent of the seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
"There were certainly times, particularly in my first few years, that it always seemed like it was the men versus the women on some of these issues, but as I've been on this committee and become more involved in the issues, really what my committee battles with all the time is a balance between victims' rights and due process," said Dumais. She has often worked on domestic violence legislation in her 16 years in the assembly, and now serves as vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
Del. Joseph Vallario, a Democrat who chairs the committee, said the law will be better now that they've worked out disagreements.
"It was a complicated subject," Vallario said. "Each side gave a little bit, and it finally came to a conclusion."
About 45 states and the District of Columbia limit parental rights of rapists, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. About 30 allow or require the complete termination of rights. The other states and the District of Columbia deny or restrict some aspect, such as custody or visitation.
Lawmakers came close to approving it last year, but a panel of lawmakers failed to reconcile differences between the House and Senate before that session adjourned. Women made a point of noting that the panel was all-male.
The president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House — also male — "made it abundantly clear that this was the year that it was going to be a top priority, and it must come out early in the session, so there's no risk of waiting like we did last year until the final minutes before adjournment," Kagan said. With unanimous votes in both chambers and more than two months left in the 90-day session, there's ample time for the technical votes needed to put it on Hogan's desk.
Various studies over the last two decades estimate that between 17,000 and 32,000 rape-related pregnancies occur in the United States every year, according to the NCSL. Studies vary widely on the outcome of such pregnancies, according to an analysis of the bill by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.
Dumais said "I don't think there's going to be a flood at the courthouse door of new applications to terminate parental rights," but it's critical to have a legal mechanism in place for those who need it.