Missouri’s ban on pregnant women divorcing creates a ‘perfect storm’ for reproductive abuse

At least five US states, including California and Missouri, prevant pregnant people from finalising a divorce. But with abortion under attack, women’s rights groups say such laws pose a grave danger to survivors of domestic abuse. Io Dodds reports

Thursday 07 March 2024 16:00 GMT
Ashley Aune, a Missouri legislator, is trying to overturn her state’s ban on divorcing while pregnant
Ashley Aune, a Missouri legislator, is trying to overturn her state’s ban on divorcing while pregnant (Ashley Aune)

Ashley Aune had been serving in the Missouri state legislature for a little over a year when she learned a surprising legal fact.

According to a law enacted in 1973, no person in Missouri may finalise a divorce while pregnant – even if they are being abused by their spouse.

"I was floored that this was still on the books," the 38-year-old Democrat legislator, tells The Independent.

Missouri is not alone. Arizona, Arkansas, and Texas all have similar bans, according to Newsweek. In seven other states, including Hawaii, Maine, and Delaware, judges are unlikely to grant divorces where one spouse is pregnant.

Nor do such laws only exist in red states. Democrat-dominated California denies a final divorce if one spouse is pregnant, according to reports and Golden State women’s rights groups.

For some people, this might simply be an inconvenience: one more hurdle on the already exhausting legal obstacle course required to break up a marriage.

But reproductive rights advocates and anti-abuse organisations tell The Independent that such laws pose a grave danger to women – and anyone else with a uterus – attempting to flee abusive marriages.

That is especially true in states such as Missouri that have imposed strict restrictions or near-bans on abortion following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade.

"In our state, when you’re able to keep a woman pregnant, you’re able to keep her married," says Aune, who is now attempting to overturn the “antiquated” law through the state legislature. "And that is a really scary proposition in 2024."

Biden condemns 'extremist' Supreme Court after Roe v Wade overturned

'Pregnancy is an extremely dangerous time for abuse survivors'

When Fox 4 Kansas City reported on Aune’s bill last week, it quickly went viral. Readers largely had no idea that pregnancy could interfere with divorce, and expressed surprise that such laws existed.

"A person who’s not an attorney – they probably don’t know this," says Nicole Britton-Snyder, managing attorney at the Family Violence Law Center (FVLC) in Oakland, California, which helps abuse survivors throughout the area.

"Add in the fact that [many survivors] don’t have the economic ability to afford counsel, and they’re probably not going to learn [about] it."

Nor does the issue appear to be widely known among anti-abuse organisations. Many groups contacted by The Independent declined to comment, with some saying they did not have enough expertise to shed light on it.

Generally speaking, the original purpose of such laws was to make sure that issues of custody, paternity, and child support were settled before an impending child was actually born, according to experts consulted by The Independent.

Many states do not allow a court to discuss such matters until after birth, when the foetus legally becomes a person for the purpose of divorce law. (That some of those states also define a foetus as a person for other purposes, such as abortion and fertility treatment, is an irony not lost on reproductive rights activists.)

These laws don’t stop an abuse survivor beginning the divorce process, or applying for a restraining order, or physically getting away from their spouse. But advocates say that every additional barrier to separation creates an additional risk.

"Continuing to force a legal connection between a survivor and their abusive partner places the survivor at increased risk, exposes them to further harm, could increase emotional distress, hinders their ability to seek safety and healing, and could also further financial dependance or entanglement," says Marium Durrani, vice president of policy for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Pregnancy in particular is an "extremely dangerous time" for women in an abusive situation, says Amy Matsui of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Research by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found that one in six abused women were first abused during pregnancy.

Likewise, refusing to grant a divorce can afford extra opportunities for abusers to exploit the legal system against their partners. Vexatious litigation, legal costs, and mandatory financial disclosures can all become weapons for inflicting mental and economic harm, according to Britton-Snyder.

Abortion is still broadly legal in California, which makes this situation concerning but hardly the top priority for women’s rights groups. In places like Missouri, however, where the Republican-dominated legislature has banned nearly all abortions, it takes on another valence entirely.

'Reproductive coercion' on the rise after abortion ban

In a recent hearing in support of Aune’s bill, Missouri legislators heard testimony from a pregnant woman who had sought a divorce after suffering horrific physical abuse from her husband.

"The attorney basically sent her away, and said ‘there’s nothing I can do’," says Aune. "She said she was so demoralised.

"She felt like she couldn’t do anything in that moment to protect herself to protect her [existing] child and her unborn child. It was harrowing, absolutely harrowing, hearing those experiences."

Such cases appear to be getting more common since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022, which abolished the nationwide right to abortion established in Roe v Wade in 1973.

Aune’s attempt to overturn the Missouri ban was prompted by entreaties from Synergy Services, a Kansas City non-profit that supports domestic abuse survivors, which has seen numerous clients blocked from getting a divorce because of "reproductive coercion".

Ashley Aune (Ashley Aune)

Reproductive coercion is the term anti-abuse groups use for any situation where one partner attempts to exert control over the other’s reproductive system.

That might mean sabotaging their partner’s contraception, preventing them from seeing a doctor, or raping them to get or keep them pregnant against their will.

In the Missouri hearing, people who work to rehabilitate former sex offenders testified that some men will even track their partners’ ovulation cycles in order to coerce them into pregnancy.

And in the first year following Dobbs, the National Domestic Violence Hotline says it saw a 98 per cent increase in cases involving abortion or reproductive coercion.

"These two things together – the abortion ban and the inability to get divorced while pregnant – creates a perfect storm for somebody who’s facing intimate partner violence during their pregnancy," says Aune.

Indeed, Pregnancy Justice, a New York City non-profit, says that laws such as Missouri’s are part of a wider phenomenon of society trying to control the lives of pregnant people, often to their own detriment. A spokesperson points out that at least three states allow someone to be forcibly hospitalised if they use drugs while pregnant, while 14 states have previously punished fathers for failing to stop their pregnant partner’s drug abuse – effectively demanding they exert control over their partners.

Some Missouri Republicans have opposed Aune’s bill. Denny Hoskins, a state senator and a member of the Missouri Freedom Caucus, told The Kansas City Star that he was in favour of an exemption for domestic violence but not a general end to the ban.

"Just because the husband and wife are not getting along, or irreconcilable differences, I would not consider that that would be a good reason to get divorced during a pregnancy," he said.

Two other Republicans, Jeff Farnan and Sherri Gallick, have co-sponsored Aune’s bill – something Aune herself is keen to stress as a turbulent election year threatens to disrupt attempts at bipartisan cooperation.

Likewise, Aune notes that it is not only domestic abuse survivors who are hurt by the ban, and nor is it only women who suffer from domestic coercion.

"Reproductive coercion can go both ways – such as [a woman] getting pregnant to make it so that your husband can’t leave a marriage. I really want to emphasise that fact," she says."

Similarly, she has seen stories of US military members serving overseas whose spouses have cheated on them and gotten pregnant, meaning they cannot finalise a divorce. Since the US military still punishes adultery, which can prompt a court martial and potentially a dishonourable discharge, they may be blocked from beginning a new relationship.

All four of the groups who spoke to The Independent – the Hotline, the FLVC, the NWLC, and the New-York-based non-profit Pregnancy Justice – urged legislators across the US to reexamine blanket bans on divorcing while pregnant.

"The focus should really be on questioning, why do we have this in place to begin with?" says Britton-Snyder. "Is it necessary? And is it doing more harm than good?"

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