The Massachusetts legislature unanimously agreed to amend a domestic violence law to grant parental rights to convicted rapists who impregnate their victims. The unprecedented bill got NO media attention either before or after Governor Patrick signed it into law in August 2014.
Think about that.
Lawmakers in the Commonwealth — without informing their constituents — proposed and voted for a law that for the first time in Massachusetts history turned convicted “impregnation rapists” into “Daddies.”
Some advocacy groups were aware of the bill, including the Women’s Bar Association and Jane Doe, but they stayed silent.
Not a single elected official or advocacy organization objected even though the law empowers sex offenders to force their victims to appear in family court side-by-side, for years, so that a judge can determine whether it is in a child’s “best interests” to have “visitation” with the man who raped the child’s mommy. This is the law even if a fifty year-old guy is convicted of raping a twelve year-old child.
Under the new law, family courts are mandated to conduct “best interests” hearings, which means victims must submit to protracted, government-ordered unwanted legal proceedings with their attackers. And if the judge orders visitation, the victim can be ordered to co-parent with her attacker for at least eighteen years. Imbuing convicted sex offenders with such “rights” allows them not only to control the lives of their victims, but also to impose substantial burdens on victims who will have to hire lawyers to protect themselves and their children, and spend time appearing in court over and over again to indulge and respond to the demands of their attackers. And make no mistake, many offenders will offer to give up their parental rights in exchange for the victim NOT reporting the crime to police, or asking for financial support to help raise the child. In any other context such deal-making would be called obstruction of justice.
Stranger still is that if the judge thinks there should be visitation on the grounds that raping the mother doesn’t mean the guy can’t be good father, (a common ruling in family court), the victim has to somehow find a way to say to her child: “Sweetie – you have to go spend time with this man, even though you don’t know him – because he attacked Mommy and got in trouble with the police and the judge said that because he did such a bad thing, he is allowed to be your daddy.”
All the Commonwealth’s Senators who voted signed onto the bill, as did all the members of the House who voted. Not a single elected official voted AGAINST giving convicted rapists parental rights. Seriously.
Some 20,000 babies are born from rape every year in the United States, yet few states address whether impregnation rapists should be able to assert parental rights. Which means few lawmakers understand that rape-sperm is worth NOTHING on the fatherhood scale. Indeed, it is a WEAPON akin to a knife or a gun — not a font of fertility.
I wonder whether the legislature would have felt differently about a bill to impose “fatherhood” on men whose sperm is stolen by women who use it to cause their own pregnancies. I’m guessing here, but I suspect the legislature would have though it poor public policy to allow women convicted of felony theft to be able to use their crime to force fatherhood on their non-consenting male victims.
Some lawmakers want to propose an amendment that would terminate parental rights upon proof of rape by “clear and convincing” evidence (75% proof). But that wouldn’t help because there would still be a biological presumption of parental rights until a court rules otherwise. It’s not asking a lot to expect our elected officials to create a legal presumption AGAINST parental rights for rapists, and to ensure that offenders, not victims, bear all legal burdens of proof.
Moreover, only a mere “preponderance” of evidence (51% proof) should suffice to prove sexual misconduct that causes childbirth because preponderance is the admissibility standard in family court for other harmful behaviors, such as drug dealing. When a totality of evidence amounts to clear and convincing proof of “unfitness,” parental rights are forever terminated. Why would lawmakers want ONLY sexual misconduct to be subjected to a higher degree of proof?
In a civilized society, we wouldn’t need to codify the obvious — and we certainly wouldn’t codify the obscene idea that rapists whose victims are ovulating at the time of the crime should be rewarded with the privilege of fatherhood. But then, in a civilized society, rapists wouldn’t have lobbyists.
Professor of sexual violence law
Wendy Murphy is adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston where she has taught for fifteen years. An impact litigator whose work in state and federal courts around the country has changed the law to improve protections for women’s and children’s constitutional rights, she developed and directs several projects in conjunction with the school’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility.