An Arizona woman in a vegetative state who has been living in a nursing home for more than a decade gave birth December 29 to a baby boy, but that’s not the most revolting part of the story. The man who raped and impregnated her is considered the child’s father, with full parental rights.
Thanks to Brock Turner and Bill Cosby, it’s not difficult to believe a man would sexually assault an unconscious woman. But the Arizona case is a whole new level of awful because, assuming cops identify the guy through DNA testing, the victim’s family could be forced to bring the child to the prison visitation center on Father’s Day.
Many states have laws that permit courts to TAKE AWAY parental rights from impregnation rapists, but few prevent the rights from ever coming into being in the first place. Arizona is among a handful of states that have no laws at all to prevent rapists from asserting parental rights. Sounds terrible but Massachusetts is worse because the law here PERMITS rapists to seek custody and visitation.
In 2014 the Massachusetts legislature secretly enacted a law to recognize parental rights, even for convicted rapists. The law gives them leverage they can use to threaten and intimidate victims: eg., “don’t testify and I won’t seek visitation.” The law especially harms religious rape victims who won’t choose abortion. In no other area of law do we force crime victims to have a legal relationship with their attackers. It’s like telling a victim of home invasion that the criminal has ownership rights over the victim’s property because he painted a mural on the wall during the crime. Since when do we give criminals rewards for their behavior, much less the noble reward of fatherhood?
You’d think lawmakers would want to deter rapists from causing pregnancy and transmitting disease. Instead, they passed a law that encourages it.
Who knows what poison was on tap at the State House the day legislators thought it was a good idea to refer to impregnation rapists as “Daddy.” Maybe they assumed that DNA alone mandates the creation of parental rights. Unlikely because they knew that was not true of sperm donors, who can’t even file papers in court to TRY to get visitation rights with their biological offspring. How can rapists have better rights than sperm donors?
DNA is important, but it’s not everything, and when the DNA is from a rapist it should cause extra punishment, not rights.
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.