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Missouri legislators want to raise the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18

Child marriage
Maria Fabrizio
Special to NPR
Bills in the Missouri legislature seek to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18. The Senate version is expected to be heard on the floor soon.

Bipartisan legislation that would eliminate child marriage in Missouri is awaiting debate in the state Senate.

Currently, minors who are 16 or 17 can get married to someone under 21 in Missouri if they have parental consent.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, would change that. Rehder herself was married at 15.

“It's very personal for me to make this step for women, for girls in the direction that gives them more prosperity long term and gives them more success in family, in life and in their careers,” Rehder said.

Sen. Lauren Arthur said child marriage puts children at risk of social isolation, mental and physical health issues and abuse.

“Raising the marriage age to 18, it's not just legislative action, it's a moral imperative, and I'm so hopeful that we're going to be able to get it done in Missouri,” said Arthur, D-Kansas City.

Fraidy Reiss, an activist against child marriage and founder of the organization Unchained at Last, said child marriage also creates legal complications.

“A minor is not allowed to bring a legal action in their own name, they're not even allowed to file for divorce,” Reiss said. “So, imagine as a 16- or 17-year-old, your parent can drag you into the clerk's office, marry you off against your will, and then you have to wait until 18 to file for divorce.”

In 2018, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation that raised the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 16. Marriage between a minor and someone 21 or older is also prohibited by state law.

Through the new legislation, there would be no exceptions for someone to get married under the age of 18. Rehder said she has no intention of allowing any exceptions to be added on her bill.

The bill, which passed a committee in early February, is now awaiting debate by the whole Senate.

On the House side, Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Lesterville, is sponsoring similar legislation. The House bill has not been heard in committee.

Rehder said that she expects to present the bill on the Senate floor soon and that she can handle whatever objections come up.

“I don't know that there are any, no one has come up to me thus far this year saying anything about being opposed to it,” Rehder said. “It came out of committee 100%, and so I feel pretty confident that we're going to be able to debate this in a short amount of time and get it out of the chamber.”

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.