Why Idaho Lawmakers Killed a Child Marriage Bill

Why Idaho Lawmakers Killed a Child Marriage Bill March 4, 2019

In the last few years, a movement to end child marriage in the U.S. has grown up, fueled by data revealing that an astounding number of young teenage girls have gotten married across the country, often to much older men. Stories of children married at 11, 12, and 13 have shocked people around the country. Lawmakers in states like Delaware and New York have responded by raising the minimum age of marriage, and lawmakers in other states—including Idaho—have introduced bills following suit.

In Idaho, children ages 16 and 17 can marry with parental consent, and children 15 and younger can marry with the consent of a judge. On its face, this statute may make intuitive sense—we assume parents will only approve a marriage if they consider the teen mature and prepared, just as we assume a judge would not approve a match unless there was very good reason. But what of parents who might pressure a pregnant minor teen to marry her boyfriend, leaving her—legally a child—with little ability to refuse? And what good reason could a girl of 11, 13, or 15 possibly have for getting married?

We’ll get to that in a moment.

Stories about girls of 10, 12, and 14 getting pregnant as the result of predation by much older men and subsequently being forced to marry their abusers—generally with the approval of a judge—have shocked the nation in recent years. Make no mistake: Pregnancy is the most common reason parents and judges alike approve of minors marrying. A girl is pregnant—she must be married. (Under ordinary circumstances, a 39-year-old man can be arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl—this is termed statutory rape—but if the two are married, it becomes legal.)

An astounding number of parents and judges have proven willing to sanction such matches. Advocacy organization Unchained at Last, which has collected data on child marriage in 38 states, found that the youngest child married in Idaho since 2000 was a 13-year-old girl. Even worse, as outlined in a report by the Tahirih Justice Center:

Idaho requires the minor’s petition to show that the minor is “physically and/or mentally so far developed as to assume full marital and parental duties,” and even instructs the judge to secure a physician’s expert opinion that the minor is “sufficiently developed mentally and physically to assume full marital duties.” These detailed criteria become illusory, however, because the statute permits the judge to grant the petition either if the minor is developmentally mature enough, or if the judge determines that it is in the best interest of society that the marriage be permitted.

When might a judge find a marriage involving a female child “in the best interest of society”? Oh, that’s right, when a girl is pregnant and is standing before a judge who believes out-of-wedlock births are ruining this country.

In Idaho, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to end the marriage of girls aged 15 and under entirely. This bill would have still allowed girls of 16 or 17 to marry, but with the consent not just of their parents but also of a judge.

This bill failed.

“I do not think courts should be involved in marriage at all,” said Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls. “I don’t believe there should be a license required to get married. I think two willing people should be able to go and get married.”

So is Zollinger sponsoring a bill to eliminate marriage licenses? I’m guessing not. I’m also guessing he’s not the kind of person who approves of people shacking up, which is, weirdly, effectively what he’s advocating.

The root of the issue, though, is how we define “two willing people.” The problem with child marriage is that children lack the autonomy adults have. Even a child of 16 or 17 can’t move out of her parent’s house without parental consent. There’s a reason marriage equality supporters spoke of marriage being between any two “consenting adults.” Adults have certain legal rights that children simply don’t have. That gets in the way of Zollinger’s “two willing people” equation.

Does Zollinger support giving children adults’ legal rights? Nope. Zollinger is a big parental rights person. He supported a bill that would only allow students to have access to sex education if their parents explicitly opt them in. Let’s be clear—Zollinger doesn’t think minor teens are mature enough to access sex ed without parental consent, but he does think they’re mature enough to get married.

Awesome.

What other reasons did lawmakers give for opposing the bill?

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said: “This is a decision I think should belong with families. I believe parental consent, which is what is in the law right now, should be sufficient.

Let’s just return to arranged marriage while we’re at it, shall we? That’s the natural end game of an emphasis on parental consent, after all, isn’t it?

Young appears to be concerned not by the ban on marriage under age 16 but on the addition to a judge to marriage of a child of 16 or 17. I get it. However. 

Marriage of children under age 18 ought to be taken off the table altogether, parental or judicial consent or no. The United Nation considers any marriage of a girl under 18 a child marriage and holds that child marriage should be discontinued across the board. Even apart from the issue I mentioned earlier—that a minor of any age lacks certain rights only adults have—a girl of 16 or 17 has not yet finished high school.

The biggest objection raised to a bar on marriage before age 18 tends to be teenage pregnancy. Conservative parents don’t like the idea that their 16-year-old daughter could get pregnant and be barred from marrying the child’s father.

Rep. Zito made this clear in her connection to abortion:

Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, complained that the bill would make it illegal for a 15-year-old girl to get married but not to get an abortion.

“If we pass this legislation, it will then become easier in the state of Idaho to obtain an abortion at 15 years old than it will to decide to form a family and create a family for a child that has been conceived,” Zito said.

Is it really better for a pregnant 15-year-old to marry her teenage boyfriend (or her predator, if he is an adult) than for it is for her to raise the child on her own—hopefully with the support of her family and his—and wait to marry until she is a more mature 18? (We’re assuming abortion is off the table.) Having a child at 15 (or 16 or 17) is a big enough responsibility without throwing in a huge decision like marriage.

I don’t find Zito’s abortion comparison at all convincing. A teen’s choice to have an abortion is frequently a choice not to opt into adult responsibilities too early, which makes it the opposite of the (often coerced) choice to marry as a pregnant teen. But the bigger takeaway from Zito’s comments is this: she views marrying and forming a family as the ideal response to teen pregnancy—even for a child of 15.

Zito suggests that a pregnant 15-year-old’s best course of action is to marry “and create a family.” How? And then what? If her boyfriend is her own age, is he to drop out of school and get a job, while she does the same and raises their baby? Can two young teenagers even sign a lease? And if the baby’s father is an adult—-well, then our 15-year-old rendered vulnerable and helpfulness and married to her predator.

There is no world in which it makes sense to me for a 15-year-old to get married, but here’s the rub—conservatives disagree. If a 15-year-old is pregnant, they really do think it is better for her to marry than either have an abortion or bear a child out of wedlock. Their opposition to bans on child marriage is not so much that they don’t think girls are pressured into marriage as children as it is that they think pregnant girls should be pressured into marriage as children.

And that is why this Idaho bill failed.

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