Maryland is set to join more than 40 other states Tuesday in allowing women who become pregnant as a result of a sexual assault to terminate their attacker’s parental rights.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is scheduled to sign the emergency bill at a ceremony in the morning; it will take effect immediately. The governor will be joined by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The legislation is seen as a major victory for victims’-rights advocates, who fought for nine years to get the General Assembly to approve the measure. Only five other states have no laws on the books regarding parental rights and sexual assault, said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
In past years, the bill failed mainly because of a protracted debate over men’s rights and the appropriate burden of proof.
Some lawmakers maintained that men should only have their rights terminated when they are proven to have committed assault “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard used in criminal court. Others pushed for the threshold used in civil court, proof though “clear and convincing evidence.”
Advocates noted that Maryland law 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 said, in cases of sexual assault.
Maryland will be the 25th state to use the clear and convincing evidence” standard, joining Florida, Georgia and Illinois, among others, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana, Missouri and Nebraska are among the states that require a criminal conviction.
Advocates say the law will be used rarely, because there are not large numbers of women impregnated in assaults and seeking to terminate rights.
But Jordan and others said the statute carries enormous importance for the women who will be impacted by it. Jordan said her organization will go to court Wednesday to file a termination request for one woman based on the new law.
“For her, this means a tremendous amount, to go to court and fight,” Jordan said. “It’s a change in the way Maryland is treating women and allegations of rape. It says we respect you enough to allow you to go to court and prove your case.”
The rights-termination bill died in the final hours of Maryland’s 90-day General Assembly session last year after an all-male panel of lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on different versions of the legislation passed by the state Senate and the House of Delegates.
The lack of action caused a backlash, and Miller and Busch vowed to make the legislation a priority this session. Hogan promised to sign it.