Here Are the States Where You Can’t Finalize a Divorce If You’re Pregnant

Missouri Democrats are trying to reverse a state law that prohibits pregnant people from finalizing a divorce, even when they’re experiencing domestic violence. But Missouri isn't an outlier

Here Are the States Where You Can’t Finalize a Divorce If You’re Pregnant

For decades, married couples in some states have been prohibited from finalizing a divorce if one of them is pregnant. Couples can file for divorce, but a judge can’t finalize the divorce until the pregnant person gives birth in order to determine custody and child support. There are no exceptions, even if they’re experiencing domestic violence, which research has shown escalates during pregnancy.

This week, Missouri Democrats introduced legislation to change their state’s law, first passed in 1973, and allow pregnant people to finalize a divorce. State Rep. Ashley Aune told a local news station she was moved to file this bill upon hearing from a woman who wasn’t able to finalize her divorce and leave her abusive husband while she was pregnant. “Not only was she being physically and emotionally abused, but there was reproduction coercion used,” Aune said. “When she found out she was pregnant and asked a lawyer if she could get a divorce, she was essentially told no. It was so demoralizing for her to hear that. She felt she had no options.”

Aune’s bill is backed by the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which said legislation like this could “literally save lives.” (Homicide is a leading cause of death among pregnant women.)

Missouri’s law has since drawn widespread public outrage, but it’s not an outlier. There’s no clear map of each state’s laws governing pregnancy and divorce, but Missouri is one of several that prohibit or outright ban courts from finalizing a divorce during pregnancy. Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Arizona, Arkansas, and even California all have such laws, according to tracking from the American Pregnancy Association and Hello Divorce. Texas and California allow exceptions for domestic violence, but it’s unclear if such exceptions exist in the other states. Meanwhile, in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Maine, Delaware, and Hawaii, there’s not an explicit ban but Newsweek reports that “judges will likely make couples wait until the baby is born before allowing a divorce.” According to Custody Exchange, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Washington, Massachusetts, and Michigan are among the few states that allow judges to finalize a divorce before a baby is born.

While Missouri is presently bringing a lot of eyeballs to the issue of how pregnancy impacts divorce proceedings, divorce itself has increasingly become a point of political contention. Conservatives and right-wing influencers—including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R) before being elected to Congress—are advocating against no-fault divorce, which allows people to end a marriage without proving abuse or infidelity. Getting rid of no-fault divorce would make women more vulnerable to entrapment in abusive relationships, and in the aforementioned states, that can already happen if victims are pregnant. 

In a recent report on fetal personhood—a rising legal movement that recognizes embryos as children with rights, and consequently subjects pregnant people to state control—Pregnancy Justice warns that for years now, “divorce proceedings have been a site of great contestation” over embryos and pregnancy. Speaking to Jezebel, Pregnancy Justice President Lourdes Rivera referenced the McKenna v. Miller case: In 2013, Olympic athlete Bode Miller sued his ex-partner, Sara McKenna, for custody after she moved from California to New York for school while pregnant with their unborn child. A New York court called McKenna’s move “reprehensible” and “unjustifiable conduct” and granted Miller custody. An appeals court later reversed this, but Rivera pointed to the case as an example of how legal systems can be weaponized to allow pregnant people’s partners to control them.

“When you have laws like Missouri’s and those in different states, you’re allowing the control of someone who’s pregnant, because they’re pregnant,” Rivera said. It’s “just one example” of the different legal standards pregnant women are held to that they otherwise wouldn’t be if they weren’t pregnant, like how child endangerment laws can be weaponized against pregnant people for behaviors that are otherwise legal, or even just for interstate travel, like the McKenna case.

The regulation of pregnant women’s marital lives on the basis of their pregnancy is one of numerous “cascading legal implications” we’ll encounter when embryos and pregnancies are even vaguely understood as children. As of last week, several fertility clinics in Alabama have suspended IVF services due to a state Supreme Court ruling that embryos are “extrauterine children” and you can be sued for wrongful death for destroying them, which IVF requires. And as Jezebel has previously reported, there have been custody battles and legal conflicts concerning embryos since at least 2000, in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, and Arizona. Sofia Vergara’s ex sued her over their unused embryos as part of a years-long, ultimately unsuccessful legal battle. Legal conflicts like this can make women face the risk of remaining entangled with past partners and abusers “indefinitely,” Pregnancy Justice’s Dana Sussman told Jezebel last week.

Laws regulating pregnant women’s ability to finalize divorce can endanger them on two fronts, Rivera says, by both abridging their legal rights and increasing their physical vulnerability to violence if their spouse is abusive. “Policymakers are removing the pregnant person’s ability to take actions and make decisions for themselves, that they need to make for their health, for their safety, or just for their lives,” she said, stressing the importance of the new bill in Missouri to change this. Pregnant or not pregnant, and whether or not domestic violence is a factor, “no one should be forced to remain in a marriage against their will.”

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