LEGISLATION THAT would allow a rape victim to terminate the parental rights of her attacker has been introduced into the Maryland General Assembly nine times. Nine times it has died — making Maryland one of the dwindling few states in the country that requires a woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape to negotiate custody and adoption decisions with her assailant. As a result, Maryland has been reduced — rightly — to an object of national and international ridicule.
Leaders of the General Assembly are promising a different outcome when lawmakers reconvene next week. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) have signed on as co-sponsors of legislation that would establish a court process to terminate rapists' parental rights when a child is conceived through rape. "Senate Democratic leadership is going to make clear this is a priority," Mr. Miller explained in a posting on Facebook, noting "we can make sure victims of rape are protected and not forced to co-parent with their rapists."
It's good that the legislature's two most powerful lawmakers are pushing for change. But Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is right to warn "it's not over until it's over." Optimism and vows for action before the start of session can fall victim to the byzantine ways of Annapolis and the enormous power of committee chairmen. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), long-standing chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has managed to keep bills addressing the issue bottled up in committee despite widespread support. Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), his Senate counterpart, gave lip service to the measure but was either unable or unwilling to get the bill past the finish line in the past two sessions.
It was particularly painful last year when the legislation passed unanimously in both the House and Senate but died in the final hours of the session as the two chambers failed to reconcile differences in their versions of the bill. Neither Mr. Vallario nor Mr. Zirkin thought to name a woman to the conference committee, a fact that helped draw even more attention to the failure to act.
The bills prefiled for the upcoming session reflect the many years of study and debate about the issue, as well as the experiences of other states; Maryland is one of only about half a dozen that still grant parental rights to rapists. The bills provide for careful and balanced court adjudication with protections for all parties, including the accused. Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch should insist on early hearings and action — and an end to excuses about why this obvious reform has yet to become a reality.