Under current Maine law, when a pregnancy results from a sexual assault, very few legal protections exist for a woman who wants to terminate the parental rights of the person who raped her.
A bill before the legislature sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, LD 1477, “An Act To Protect Victims of Sexual Assault,” would help reduce barriers for victims of sexual assault who wish to raise their child and have the parental rights of the person who raped them terminated.
Each year 5 percent of female victims between the ages of 12 and 45 become pregnant as a result of rape, with an estimated 32,000 pregnancies annually nationwide. As though the trauma and repercussions of sexual violence are not enough, such victims are also forced to make a complex and difficult personal decision: terminate their pregnancy, make an adoption plan or raise a child conceived from rape.
A woman’s decision to raise a child conceived from rape should not come with the additional burden of having to co-parent with the man who raped her. Men who father children through rape should be prevented from causing further harm to their victim.
Current law requires the termination of parental rights and responsibilities when the child in question was conceived as a result of a sexual assault crime only when the perpetrating parent has been convicted of that crime. LD 1477 would require a lower bar — “clear and convincing evidence” — to terminate the perpetrator’s parental rights.
Given the criminal justice process, there is little to no chance of a criminal conviction occurring before a pregnancy comes to term. This creates significant burdens on the victims of the most underreported violent crime in the United States.
Even when rapes are reported, survivors and prosecutors face near impossible odds. National estimates demonstrate that only 2 percent of reported sexual assaults result in a conviction. Cases frequently boil down to whether a jury understands the dynamics of sexual violence and common responses to trauma. For instance, the victim might not scream or fight back, might not immediately report to police, and might not have visible injuries.
These common and biologically based responses often make prosecution notoriously difficult. Often, success in criminal court is attainable only for the most outrageous and heinous assaults, in the narrowest of circumstances, as evidenced by the stark rate of convictions.
Taking all of these barriers into account, victims may choose to operate outside of the criminal justice system and negotiate with their rapist directly, contributing to the trauma initially caused by their rape.
This cannot continue to be the standard for how a rape survivor tries to protect herself against years of re-traumatization. If we value victims of sexual assault, we need to do better.
A woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape should know that if she decides to parent that there is more than one avenue for advocating for her safety from the person who raped her. A woman who decides to raise a child conceived of rape shouldn’t be traumatized over and over by having to interact with the person who raped her — nor should her child be required to be in contact with the person who raped his or her mother.
A woman who makes such a decision should be free to heal, go on to live a productive life and raise her child in a healthy environment.
Victims of rape — and their children — deserve every protection the law can provide. Our laws must reflect our values and truly support survivors of sexual violence. LD 1477 would improve the protections Maine can extend to both a survivor and her child by offering more options in the civil legal system. Mainers should urge our legislators to put these vital protections in place.
Cara Courchesne is the communications director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She may be reached at email@example.com.