‘It just doesn’t make sense in 2024’: Missouri law that bars pregnant woman from getting divorced on chopping block

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State Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat and the Missouri House Minority Whip, introduced a bill that would amend the state’s divorce law to allow pregnant women to get divorced. (Screengrab via WDAF).

A Missouri lawmaker says it is time to end an archaic law that forces pregnant women to stay in potentially dangerous marriages.

HB 2402 amends the state’s existing divorce law to remove the requirement that a pregnant woman wait until she gives birth in order to get divorced and to specifically state that “pregnancy status shall not prevent the court from entering a judgment of dissolution of marriage or legal separation.”

In Missouri, as in Texas, Arizona, and Arkansas, the current law requires that a pregnant woman has given birth before any child custody or child support order is finalized. A married couple are permitted to file for divorce while the wife is pregnant, but the court cannot issue a final order of divorce or even legal separation given that custody or support orders would be a necessary part of those decrees.

In other states, married parties are permitted to go through the entire divorce process regardless of whether a party is pregnant. A child born to the parties after a divorce is finalized would simply become the subject of a post-judgment proceeding or independent custody or support proceeding.

The lawmaker who proposed the change said it was time to get the archaic rule off the books.

“It just doesn’t make sense in 2024,” said State Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat and the Missouri House Minority Whip who sponsored the bill.

The requirement that any children expected to be born to divorcing parties be born before the divorce becomes final likely stems from what is called the “presumption of legitimacy.” Historically, and even currently in most states, when a married woman gives birth to a child, the woman’s husband is presumed to be child’s father. That presumption is “rebuttable,” which means that a spouse or a third party can question a child’s paternity and establish a child’s legal father as someone other than the husband via genetic testing and corresponding court proceeding.

The public policy reason underlying the presumption of legitimacy is to minimize the number of children born without legal parentage, thereby preserving children’s legal right to financial support.

However, many who advocate against domestic violence say that forcing pregnant women to wait until their children are born before divorcing exposes both women and children to unnecessary risk. Abusive spouses can use pregnancy as a weapon to force a woman to stay in a dangerous marriage, they argue.

“This legislation could literally save lives,” said Matthew Huffman with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.

Huffman testified in support of the bill and said of the bill’s text: “That single line can have a tremendous impact on the health and safety of women and infants.”

HB 2402 was the subject of a public hearing on Feb. 7. Julie Donelon, CEO of Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), testified on behalf of the bill and said that her organization knows too well the danger facing women trapped in sexually violent marriages.

Donelan provided some sobering statistics.

“Approximately 10-14% of married women are raped by their husbands,” said Donelon, who added that 20% of marries rape victims reported that their partner intentionally tried to get them pregnant against their will.

“Abusers use rape and reproductive coercion to maintain power and control and keep their partner from leaving the marriage,” Donelon explained. “By sabotaging birth control, coercing someone into pregnancy, and by forcing rapid repeat pregnancy, the barriers to and danger of leaving an abusive relationship increase exponentially.”

Donelan continued, adding that homicide is the leading cause of death of pregnant women, and that women in the U.S. are more likely to be murdered during pregnancy or soon after childbirth than they are to die from the three leading pregnancy-related causes of death.

“HB 2402 bill will support survivors of domestic and sexual violence in leaving abusive relationships at a critical and dangerous time,” Donelan concluded. “I am grateful for Rep. Aune for introducing this bill that will save the lives of women and allow them to safely leave an abusive marriage.”

If the legislative committee votes to advance the bill, the next step would be a hearing before the full Missouri House of Representatives. After that, it would move to the state Senate, then to Republican Gov. Mike Parson to sign into law.

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