A nationwide movement to eliminate child marriage emerged a few years ago after journalists published hard-hitting exposés revealing that children as young as 10 and 11 have been legally married in states across the U.S. in the last decade. These articles also revealed that many minors (most girls) were married to individuals decades their senior. Outrage ensued, and lawmakers in a number of states have since changed their laws.
Louisiana currently has no minimum age of marriage. This spring lawmakers introduced a bill to fix this problem. Various versions of the bill specified 18, 17, or 16 as the minimum age of marriage. (According to the UN, any marriage in which one or more participants are under 18, the age of majority, is a child marriage.) None of these bills were okay with some lawmakers, who felt strongly about allowing 15-year-olds to marry.
The opposition explained their views as follows:
“We want children to be born into wedlock if possible,” said Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette. “We’re discouraging that with this. If they’re both 16 or 15 and having a baby why wouldn’t we want them to get married?”
“A lot of 16-year-olds get pregnant,” added Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs. “Do you feel it’s better for them to not get married at all and for the child to be born illegitimately?”
In a word, yes.
I get that this is Louisiana, but I really had thought we’d moved beyond bastard laws. We no longer penalize children for being born out of wedlock. We no longer impose legal penalties on unwed mothers.
A girl who has a baby as a teen has enough on her plate without also being married. If she doesn’t finish high school, she’s going to go through life with an awful lot of closed doors. Finishing high school with a baby is hard enough without also being married, with all of the responsibilities that that entails. And let’s be clear—this isn’t about letting teens marry, because they are seen as old enough and responsible enough, this is about pressuring pregnant teens to marry, because pregnant people should be married.
Ten bucks says these same lawmakers want to see abortion banned.
According to an exhaustive Frontline investigation of marriages from 200 to present, 86% of minors who get married marry adults (while 60% of these adults are 18-20, a full 40% of them are 21 or older). So we’re not talking about two children who are 15 and 16 marrying and somehow finishing high school together. The odds that a 15-year-old married to an adult is going to finish high school strike me as exceedingly low.
We’re talking about children—who lack certain legal rights—marrying adults. The bill as currently written would bar marriages between a child and an adult four or more years her senior, but the amount of rights we bestow at age 18—and the extent to which we limit children’s rights to make their own decisions before that age—render any marriage across that line extremely iffy.
With that in mind, let’s return to the source of the objections:
State Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, brought an amendment backed by the influential Louisiana Family Forum to heavily rewrite the bill, stripping out the age floor set by Hilferty’s amendment and allowing minors to get married if they undergo a judicial review. A judge would consider a long list of factors when deciding if children should get married.
This isn’t about considering minor teens mature and responsible enough to marry. If it were, these lawmakers would be arguing that teens should be allowed to choose to get married. But that’s not what they’re arguing. The most recent draft requires 16 and 17-year-olds who wish to marry to have the consent of a parent or a judge (and the number one criteria judges are required to consider is pregnancy). Lawmakers’ opposition to limits on child marriage are about ensuring that pregnant minor teens get married post haste, period and full stop.
And then there are tone deaf comments like this:
“I met my husband when I was 14 and he was 15 and if it wasn’t for the belief that we should get a high school diploma before we get married, I would have gotten married at 15,” Amedee said.
And that means what exactly? Amedee, to be clear, is the one who wants to strip out the age floor. Does she now regret going for her high school diploma? Does she want other teens to jeopardize their ability to obtain a qualification that has clearly helped her in her own career? What does her comment even mean?
Some lawmakers are pointing out the hypocrisy of this opposition:
Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said she was “in awe” of the opposition to the bill, especially because efforts to provide sex education in Louisiana have repeatedly failed. She pointed to instances of teenage girls being wedded to men in their 30s and 40s.
In Louisiana, parents can opt their children (including teens) out of what limited sex education does exist. But somehow, these same teens are mature enough to get married. If they’re parents consent. If they’re pregnant.
Louisiana has no legal minimum age for marriage, but under current law, if one or both partners are aged 16 or 17, then parents need to appear at the clerk’s office at the time of the marriage application. Those under the age of 16 currently require a judge’s approval to get married.
More than 4,500 people under the age of 18 – including one as young as 12 – were legally married between 2000 and 2010 in Louisiana, according to figures compiled by a nonprofit organization and the documentary TV program Frontline.
Yep, that’s right—a Louisiana judge allowed a 12-year-old to marry.
What a mess.
I just want to reiterate, in closing, that opponents of this legislation are in fact actually arguing for the right of 15-year-olds to get married. While some versions of this bill would have banned all marriages under age 18, the crux of argument taking place ultimately wasn’t about 16 and 17-year-olds. It was about 15-year-olds.
In Louisiana, 15-year-olds aren’t considered mature enough to choose to access sex education in public schools, but if they’re pregnant, by golly, they need to be married off, and right quick. What a world we live in.
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