Massachusetts is often touted as one of the most liberal and progressive states in the nation, and for good reason. Famously blue, the Commonwealth is a national leader in health care, education and energy efficiency. It was one of the first states to legalize gay marriage and, on the whole, it’s not a terrible place to be a woman.
Unlike women, in, say, Texas, women in Massachusetts don’t have to worry about their state government going on a crusade against our reproductive rights. Birth control is easy (and, depending on your insurance, relatively cheap or even free) to procure and there are world-class healthcare facilities located around the state to keep women, pregnant or not, healthy. And, if a woman chooses to undergo an abortion, she’ll face few obstacles to obtaining a safe one.
It may sound rosy, but a recent complaint filed against the state has highlighted an insane law on the books in Massachusetts and 30 other states. A young woman identified only as H.T. is suing the Commonwealth for forcing her into “a court-ordered 16-year unwanted relationship with her attacker,” a man named Jamie Melendez.
And why would the state do such a thing? Because H.T. became pregnant as a result of the rape, and in those 31 states, rapists who impregnate their victims can sue for visitation or custodial rights of the child.
As if being raped and impregnated (and, in H.T.’s case, undergoing that trauma at age 14) isn’t bad enough, the courts can impose yet another violation on you: unwanted encounters with your attacker, who may also want to take your child from you.
Melendez pled guilty in 2011 and was sentenced to 16 years of probation, as a condition of which he must participate in family court and follow that court’s orders until H.T.’s child comes of age. One order required that Melendez pay $110 a week in child support, which, he argued, gave him a right to see that child. He offered to withdraw his visitation request if the court freed him from making payments.
H.T. asked the judge to order him to pay criminal restitution instead of child support, which would eliminate the need to face him in family court. In response to the judge’s refusal, H.T. filed a complaint against the state, asking to be freed from any ongoing legal interactions with Melendez.
It’s pretty disturbing that this law has gone all but unmentioned and unnoticed, especially given recent political discussion about birth control, abortion and reproductive rights. That a rapist can sue for parental rights and, even worse, possibly be granted those rights is patently absurd and should be written right out of our legal code.
And this isn’t a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. Though Todd Akin (of “legitimate rape” fame) may believe otherwise, about 5 percent of female rape victims of reproductive age become pregnant as a result, adding up to over 32,000 pregnancies a year. Approximately a third of those women carry the child to term.
Many politicians who are otherwise against abortion understand the need for exceptions in cases of rape or incest, as carrying a baby conceived in such a way would be a harrowing experience for an adult woman, let alone a teenager. But some staunchly anti-abortion ideologues believe that abortion isn’t an option even in those cases.
Richard Mourdock, one-time Indiana GOP Senate candidate, said in a 2012 debate that “life is that gift from God, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape. It is something that God intended to happen.”
Needless to say, he lost.
So if you’re a woman impregnated by your rapist, you’re in an incredibly difficult position. Either you undergo an abortion so you don’t have to bear your rapist’s child (but face conservative wrath), or you carry the baby to term, like H.T., and hope your attacker doesn’t want custody once it’s born.
There are legal ways to get a rapist’s parental rights waived: 13 of the 19 states with laws on the subject require proof of the rapist’s conviction before waiving his parental rights. But many victims never report their rapes in fear of retaliation, so that solution clearly doesn’t work.
Rape survivors are shamed and further victimized by society enough as it is. The legal system is often incredibly unsympathetic to them, sometimes even blaming them for their own assaults. Those women and girls unlucky enough to become pregnant through rape yet brave enough to carry the baby to term deserve, at the very least, to have control over their actions and bodies from that point forward. Being forced to interact with the creeps who raped them is not how that happens.
The best solution in this case is to write provisions that will keep legal messes like H.T.’s from happening in the first place. According to the complaint, “no Massachusetts law forbids the enforcement of visitation rights by a biological father who causes a child’s birth through the crime of rape.”
So then, Massachusetts, you bastion of progress, let’s forbid it.
Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]