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Pregnant women can’t legally get divorced in Missouri. A new bill could change that

Bee Harris
Special to NPR
HB 2402 clarifies language in state law to specify that pregnancy status shall not stop the court from dissolution of marriage or legal separation.

Judges in Missouri don't allow pregnant women to get divorced, but a bill introduced earlier this year could change that.

State Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, initiated HB 2402, which clarifies language in state law to specify “pregnancy status shall not prevent the court from entering a judgment of dissolution of marriage or legal separation.”

“This is an issue that resonates with so many people, not just women,” Aune said. “In the context of the state of Missouri, a state that has one of the most draconian abortion bans, I understand why it’s being framed as a women’s issue.” Missouri effectively banned abortion in June 2022, including in cases of rape and incest.

She said what the bill focuses on is having the freedom to legally bind yourself and then legally unbind yourself from another individual, despite pregnancy.

If passed, it would go into effect on Aug. 28, 2024. A public hearing was held in February, but the bill is still in committee and is not yet on the House calendar. The new piece of legislation currently has three co-sponsors: Reps. Richard Brown, D-Kansas City; Jeff Farnan, R-Stanberry, and Sherri Gallick, R-Belton.

As it stands, Missouri judges are not legally obligated to finalize a divorce if a woman is pregnant. That law has been in place since the 1970s and was last amended in 2016.

Currently, it states that when a person files for divorce, their paperwork must include certain information including the date of the marriage and separation; the residence of each party, custody and child support arrangements for any existing children, and “whether the wife is pregnant.”

If it is noted in documents that the wife is pregnant, judges will not complete the process right away. Arizona, Texas and Arkansas have similar laws.

State Representative Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Aune, who was first elected in 2020, is the Missouri House of Representative's next minority leader.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri state Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, in January at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Aune initiated HB 2402, which clarifies language in state law to specify “pregnancy status shall not prevent the court from entering a judgment of dissolution of marriage or legal separation.”

Impacts on men and women

The current law doesn’t account for cases of abuse, leaving pregnant women and their babies susceptible to long-term harm, Aune said. Several women testified in court last month sharing their stories in support of Aune’s bill.

But despite the general focus on this being a women’s issue, men are impacted, too, she said. She recalled hearing stories about wives of service members who are deployed overseas being impregnated by someone else. In those instances, men are also bound by current law and are unable to legally separate from their wives.

“Any man in a marriage is going to be on the hook for that baby until the divorce is finalized,” she said.

In family court, judges appreciate explicit instruction so there’s not much left to interpretation, Aune said. The current law is not necessarily a loophole but more of an implicit requirement that in order to finalize a divorce, you have to meet certain requirements, she added.

“I think women in our souls, we understand the threat we are up against in relationships and just existing in the world sometimes,” Aune said. “The men who understand that and feel those stories too and love us and support us, they also understand. Men who have been in this situation understand the need for this bill.”

The reason the statute is written the way it is, Aune said, is to make sure the mother and baby are taken care of. This includes ensuring prenatal costs and child support arrangements can be made.

Although judges aren’t finalizing divorces when mothers are expecting, couples can still file for divorce in Missouri — judges just often choose to wait until after a woman gives birth to finalize child custody and child support.

It’s a smoother process for judges that way, said Matthew Huffman, chief public affairs officer at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.

He noted the Maternal Mortality report published last year by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Researchers assessed data between 2018 and 2020 and found that the three top causes of pregnancy-related deaths in Missouri during that time frame included mental health, cardiovascular issues and homicide.

The report found the number of suicide deaths doubled when comparing 2017-19 with 2018-20. This corresponded with an increase in the number of firearm deaths. The data is astounding, Huffman said.

“It is not a hyperbole when I say this legislation could literally save lives,” Huffman said. “I say that because right now pregnant women can file for divorce, but in practice, judges aren’t granting and finalizing the dissolution of marriage. So it’s not exactly that we have a law that says judges can’t, it’s the way that our current dissolution of marriage laws are being interpreted and then enforced.”

Domestic violence

Huffman’s group is supporting the bill, and he testified at the public hearing last month. Julie Donelon, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault in Kansas City, also entered written testimony.

She said 10% to 14% of married women in the U.S. are raped by their husbands, based on data from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Of women who were raped by an intimate partner, 30% experienced a form of reproductive coercion by the same partner. Specifically, about 20% reported that their partner tried to get them pregnant when they did not want to or tried to stop them from using birth control.

Donelon said 23% reported their partner refused to use a condom.

“Abusers use rape and reproductive coercion to maintain power and control and keep their partner from leaving the marriage,” Donelon said. “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.”

Huffman said pregnant women can be trapped in cruel situations.

“If you are traumatizing your partner by continuing to cause reproductive sabotaging coercion and keep [getting] them pregnant, you could trap that individual in a marriage for years and years,” Huffman said. “... If mom is experiencing trauma, then that fetus is also going to be experiencing trauma.”

He said research shows that during pregnancy, the likelihood for domestic violence increases. Women experiencing domestic violence and fall pregnant aren’t able to access prenatal care, or they delay accessing prenatal care because their partner is controlling what they’re able to do, he said, by controlling their access to healthcare.

A different perspective

Not everyone is convinced HB 2402 is necessary. State Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, believes in the grand scheme of things only a small percentage of mothers and fathers would fall under the category of domestic violence.

“Typically a divorce takes a lot longer than 9 months to begin with,” Hoskins said. “I’m a big believer in a core, two-parent, loving household. It’s stressful having a newborn. If there is domestic violence going on in a marriage while the wife is pregnant, then that’s a totally different situation.”

He agreed that pregnant women shouldn’t be left in unsafe environments at home, and said he respects single parents, acknowledging the stress they’re under. But he stood strong in his stance.

“There’s many statistics that say when a child is born into a two-parent, stable, loving household, they have a much greater chance of being successful,” Hoskins said.

Huffman said there’s a longstanding practice of not wanting to bastardize a child. Establishing paternity in marriages is a smoother process, he said, because the father’s name would automatically go on the birth certificate if the couple is still married.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.