Young Marriage In The Bluegrass State
The title, I guess, is supposed to say it all: Kentucky Republicans kill bill to limit child marriage because parents should have right to marry off kids
A bill that would limit child marriage has run into opposition from Kentucky Republicans who argue that parents should be able to marry off their kids without interference of a court, the Courier-Journal reports.
The modest bill would not totally ban child marriages, but would require a judge to review records to make sure that the child was not the victim of abuse, that there are not domestic violence incident involving either party and that the adult is not a registered sex-offender. The bill would require that the judge deny the right to marry if there was a pregnancy that resulted from the adult spouse molesting the child.
How in the world can anyone oppose something so reasonable and modest? Between the title and the opening graf, you almost expect to hear some hyper-Christian homeschool kids are sending twelve year old girls into arranged marriages in a wild west of free range marriages.
But Kentucky’s current law is actually reasonably restrictive:
Under the current law in Kentucky, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, and a girl of any age under 16 can marry as long as they are pregnant and marrying the expectant father. Likewise, a boy of any age can marry a woman that he impregnates under the current law.
So we’re not exactly dealing with the wild west here. So, contra this incendiary headline, thirteen year olds can’t actually get married unless they are pregnant and even then requires judicial involvement. And contra the Raw Story headline, suggesting it’s about “marrying off kids” strips young persons of all agency.
Now, the pregnancy loophole is problematic from an incentives standpoint. Are you in love with your sweetie? Make a pregnancy happen and you can get married and live happily ever after! I question Kentucky’s prohibition on applicable shotgun marriages, but you also don’t want to encourage this sort of thing. But apart from that, you would never guess from the framing of either the law’s proponents or especially Raw Story that we’re basically talking about sixteen year olds and seventeen year olds. After the Parkland shooting, we heard a great deal about how sixteen year olds should be allowed the right to vote. Sixteen year olds may not be adults, but they are certainly capable of thinking for themselves and all that. Now, I am not arguing an inconsistency between believing that a sixteen year old should be allowed to vote and that they should not be allowed to marry. It is reasonable to believe both. But if you’re arguing that sixteen year olds have the maturity to vote and you see a sixteen year old getting married as one step removed from arranged marriages and two steps removed from sex trafficking, you probably need to take a step back.
Getting married at sixteen years old is generally a pretty bad idea, pregnancy or no. Getting married at 17 is rarely a better idea. Different states have different laws, and Kentucky’s isn’t actually out of line with other states, including enlightened blue ones such as Minnesota, Maryland and Hawaii. Sixteen is the age of consent in Kentucky, with only a step-parent exception. If you are a sixteen year old guy and you get a woman pregnant – even an illegally older woman – you are likely on the hook for child support. You can get birth control, and you can get an abortion (often without parental consent). They’re minors, but it’s a little late to be calling them children. Prohibiting a sixteen year old from getting married under any circumstances is a major step, and being opposed to that should not be construed as supporting “child marriage”.
Now, I grant my history in this realm is actually somewhat unusual, but it seems likely the median and modal case of a teenager wants to get married either involves pregnancy and hope or dopey youthful idealism. Some of the claims skirt around this by saying (I assume correctly) that most of the marriages include an adult, but if she’s sixteen and he’s eighteen that qualifies. The case that is cited in just about every article on this is indeed terrible, but maybe there is a reason they keep citing the one and use such crafty language as “age variances as great as“?.
Twenty years or so ago, there was a fourteen year old girl who went missing back home. It became a really big story where everyone was on the lookout. The story got a little sketchier over time. It turned out that she had skipped town with her boyfriend, who was eighteen. It also turned out that she was thirteen. She was pregnant and they got married. It was all illegal and very, very messy. In the end, the family asked for privacy and the DA ended up under pressure just to let them be. I’m still not comfortable with an 18/13 marriage, but it was a complicated situation for which there were no good answers. Not the least of which because from the culture they came from, 18/13 wasn’t as much of a problem.
I don’t actually have a strong opposition to this law. If I had my druthers, I would probably allow marriage as young as fifteen or so but only with parental and judicial consent up to eighteen. I would eliminate deferential treatment towards pregnancy and might add a wide-range age prohibition like 25. So my preference is somewhere in between Kentucky’s status quo and the proposed new law. Ever the centrist splitting the difference am I. But my point here is not to defend the current law or oppose the new one, but to recognize that we’re dealing with laws and cultural forces that can be complicated. We need to be able to discuss these without the sides being reduced to for and against “child marriage” and reducing the decisions of sixteen-year-olds, with the consent of their parents, to supporting legalized rape.
Supporters of the law think they will be able to address the concerns of opponents and still enact positive change. I hope they do.