Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Friday that he supports a bill that would allow women who become pregnant as a result of a rape to terminate their attackers' parental rights and is willing to sign it as soon as the General Assembly approves it.
The measure has failed nine times, including in the final hours of the 2017 legislative session. But this year, it is a top priority of the 90-day session, which begins Wednesday. Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) are co-sponsoring the measure.
"It is past time for Maryland to increase the protections available for survivors who have a child conceived through rape," Hogan said. "Nine years is too long to wait."
The 2017 bill died in the final hours of the session after key members of a conference committee panel could not reach a compromise over the House and Senate versions.
Advocates were outraged that two committee chairmen who appointed the conference panel did not include female lawmakers in the group, and legislators waited until the end of the session to try to resolve the differences in the House and Senate versions.
Miller has assured advocates and longtime bill sponsors Del. Kathleen Dumais and Sen. Brian J. Feldman, both Democrats from Montgomery County, that the measure will move out the General Assembly this year. He said he had hoped it would have reached the governor's desk last year.
"It's going to pass, and if necessary it's going to be six women on the conference committee somehow to make sure it does pass," he said. "It will be a good bill; it will be a solid bill."
But Miller added that there were reasons the measure has previously failed.
"It's not as simple as saying a rape has occurred and the fellow is no longer a parent," he said. "There are constitutional issues."
Under the bill, a woman who sought to terminate a man's parental rights would have to prove through "clear and convincing evidence" — the standard used in civil court — that the man had sexually assaulted her. The burden-of-proof standard is higher in criminal court, where charges must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Advocates argued that Maryland allows parental rights to be terminated in child-abuse cases even when there is no criminal child-abuse conviction. The same standard should apply, they say, in cases of sexual assault.
Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assaults, said her group welcomes the governor's support and looks forward to a "prompt" bill signing.
In addition to the parental rights bill, Hogan proposed two bills that deal with sexual assault and human trafficking. One measure, which failed to pass the legislature last year, cracks down on repeat sex offenders. The other would classify human trafficking as a violent crime.
Maryland has one of the highest volumes of calls to the National Human Trafficking hotline in the country, Hogan said.
Jordan said versions of the Repeat Sexual Predator Prevention Act have been introduced for decades. She said the rules committee of the state judiciary has also been reviewing the issue.
"Our view is it is a problem that needs to be fixed whether the judiciary or legislature fixes it," Jordan said. "Right now, Maryland does not allow juries to consider needed information and, as a result, too often sex offenders go free. We need a rule or a bill that is fair to survivors of sexual assault."