A bill that would allow women in Maryland who get pregnant as a result of rape to terminate the parental rights of their assailants passed a key Senate committee Tuesday.
The measure has been introduced each year for the last decade but has foundered each time amid questions about terminating the rights of men who have not been convicted of a crime and other issues.
"This is long, long overdue," said Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), the bill's sponsor, after learning the measure passed the Senate committee unanimously. "But we know from last year that until both chambers pass an identical bill it's not a done deal. . . . This is a really important first step."
The legislation is headed to the full Senate. A similar bill is expected to be voted on by the House Judiciary Committee later this week.
Under the bill, a woman who seeks 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. That is a lower burden-of-proof standard than in criminal court, where charges must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The woman must also prove that terminating the alleged attacker's parental rights is in the best interest of the child.
Those who have opposed the measure said they were concerned about constitutional issues raised by the bill, including the possibility of denying parental rights to someone who was not convicted of sexual assault.
But advocates have argued that Maryland allows parental rights to be terminated in child-abuse cases even in the absence of a criminal conviction. The same standard should apply in cases of pregnancies that occur as a result of sexual assault, they say.
On the final day of the 2017 session, an all-male panel of lawmakers appointed by the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees failed to reconcile different versions of the bill and it died. The impasse outraged advocates, who lashed out at Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), the committee chairmen.
Stung by the backlash, the presiding officers said the bill would be their top priority in the 2018 session.
"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," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said this month. "It will be a good bill; it will be a solid bill."
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has also expressed his support for the bill, saying, "Nine years is too long to wait."
The committee also approved two amendments; one added sponsors and the other removed the Sexual Assault Legal Institute as the only nonprofit organization to get referrals of victims in need of legal counsel.
Much of the debate Tuesday focused on a proposed amendment to allow a woman to seek child support from her assailant even after his parental rights were terminated.
Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), who offered the amendment, argued that it was wrong for an assailant to not be held financially responsible for his child.
The amendment failed on a 6-to-5 vote, even though the majority said it thought the amendment had merit. The two women on the committee, Sen. Dolores G. Kelly (D-Baltimore County) and Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), said they did not want to muddy the bill.
"My concern is this is the 10th year," Lee said. "I think the advocates are fine with the way it is right now. This is not a perfect bill, but we want this bill to go forward. I just don't want to see it die in the 10th year. We can always improve upon it."