A WOMAN in Maryland who becomes pregnant as the result of rape and chooses to have the child is required by law to include the man who raped her in any decisions about adoption. If she decides to raise the child herself, she will have to interact with her rapist about custody and visitation matters. Faced with these unsettling, even frightening, prospects, some women opt instead to terminate the pregnancy.
So obvious is the need for reform that groups as disparate as Planned Parenthood, Maryland Right to Life, NARAL and the Catholic Conference are backing legislation before the General Assembly that would establish a court process to terminate rapists’ parental rights when a child is conceived through rape. The bill has the support of a majority of lawmakers, with 33 senators and 78 delegates signed on as sponsors. Last week, it managed with commendable help from House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to finally get out of the House Judiciary Committee and sailed to approval on the House floor.
But passage is far from assured, say advocates sobered by the fact that similar efforts stretching back to 2007 inevitably came up short because of stiff resistance from defense attorneys, who worry that the rights of the accused are given short shrift. Leading the opposition this year is the Maryland State Bar Association, which submitted an eight-page letter of opposition.
In a blistering rebuke, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the proposed process is neither arbitrary nor automatic, and instead provides for a balanced adjudication with protections for all parties, including the accused. Just as there are provisions to terminate parental rights when there are allegations of child abuse or neglect or drug use, there should be a way to give recourse to rape victims. Under the proposal, rape victims would be able to go before a family court judge, who after an evidentiary hearing would decide if there were clear and convincing evidence the pregnancy was the result of non-consensual sex. There would also have to be a separate finding of whether it was in the best interest of the child to terminate parental rights. The procedures are in keeping with standards used to decide family court issues.
The bill is now in the hands of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, whose chairman, Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), told us he is generally supportive but that there are “technical issues” that need to be resolved. It’s an argument that’s been used in the past to kill the measure or to gut it. This is the seventh time this measure has been introduced. There has been extensive debate. Sponsors have bent over backward to address concerns, and the bill includes substantial due process protections. It is time Maryland joined the more than 20 other states that have acted to protect sexual assault victims.