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Missouri Abortion Law Forbids Pregnant Women from Finalizing a Divorce


Abortion laws from decades past are taking effect in states all over the country now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. The landmark Supreme Court case guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion under the constitution, but now states are free to implement their own abortion laws and restrictions.

Many states have abortion laws on the book from the mid or even early-20th century. With Roe gone, these laws have come back to life even if critics say they are outdated.

In Missouri, a 1973 abortion law prevents a pregnant woman from getting a divorce. She can start divorce proceedings, but it won’t be finalized while she is pregnant. Missouri is an anti-choice state and lawmakers have shown little interest in revising the decades-old law.

As journalist Anna Spoerre explains in an article published in the Kansas City Star, “In Missouri, divorce cases cannot be finalized if a woman is pregnant, since a custody agreement must first be in place. That custody agreement cannot be completed until the child is born.”

She explains how the law came into effect once the Supreme Court struck down Roe.

“The state law, while old, gained renewed attention after the Supreme Court, on June 24, overturned Roe v. Wade, repealing the constitutional right to abortion,” Spoerre reports. “The decision immediately made abortion illegal in Missouri. While many call the restriction outdated, none of those interviewed, including advocates, survivors and attorneys, know of any efforts to change the law.”

Opponents of the law argue it has dangerous implications for pregnant women and may force some women to stay in abusive relationships until they give birth.

Jess Piper, a Democrat who is running for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, has been speaking out against the law on social media.

On May 12, she tweeted, “Fact: you can’t get a divorce finalized if pregnant in Missouri. Forced pregnancies can prolong abusive situations.”

The next day Piper tweeted, “If you do get pregnant during a divorce, the husband is the presumed father, which creates all kinds of issues. Women are often treated as property and patronized in my state.”

Spoerre says many people weren’t aware of the 1973 law when they came across Piper’s tweets.

“Many people replied with disbelief,” Spoerre adds. “Others said they knew from personal experience. She did too. At 34, Piper divorced her husband. It was not an abusive relationship. Her attorney at the time warned her not to get pregnant.”

According to Spoerre, married people must answer “eight questions” when filing for divorce in Missouri.

“One of them is whether ‘the wife is pregnant,’” Spoerre explains. “If the answer is yes, the divorce proceedings can continue if the attorney chooses, but cannot be finalized until the woman is no longer pregnant. That is because, according to Missouri statute, the court must first establish paternity of a child before a divorce can be finalized, said Shannon Gordon, a family law attorney practicing in the Kansas City metro.”

Spoerre adds, “Due to a statutory presumption that a baby born during a marriage is the child of the husband, a DNA test is often completed after the child is born in order to establish paternity in court. Then, divorce proceedings can continue. The reason for all this, ultimately, is child support considerations, Gordon said.”

According to Gordon, the Missouri law makes no exception for survivors of domestic violence.

“We oftentimes see an abused spouse not have the financial means to establish a home,” Gordon explained. “Being legally entitled to things like money — and actually having the money — are two very different things, particularly when a case is ongoing.”

Spoerre also reports on what it is like for pregnant women to live under the 1973 law. She shares the story of Alissa Keaton, who was in grade school in the 1980s when her mother fled from her abusive stepfather with her siblings.

Once they were safe, her mother filed for divorce, but she found out she was pregnant a few weeks later.

The divorce was put on hold and Keaton’s mother had no choice but to move back in with her husband. The abuse continued.

“In that time, the abuse and manipulation seemed to escalate,” Spoerre writes. “While her mother was in labor at the hospital, Keaton’s stepfather sold all their furniture and their refrigerator, leaving their mother to store breast milk in a Styrofoam beer cooler.”

Domestic abuse hotlines and shelters say it usually takes seven attempts for a victim to leave their abuser.

Keaton now works as a counselor in the Kansas City area. She works in part with domestic violence survivors and said two of the most dangerous times for survivors are when they leave their abuser and when they’re pregnant. In fact, homicide is a leading cause of death during pregnancy and postpartum in the U.S.

According to Spoerre, “After her sister was born, Keaton remembers her stepfather, who she said had compromised her mother’s birth control in the past, telling her mother, ‘If you leave again, I’ll just get you pregnant again.’”

“Four months after giving birth, Keaton’s mother saved enough to again file for divorce. This time she was successful. But had her mother been able to leave when she initially filed for divorce, it would have saved their family from enduring an additional year of abuse, which included child sexual abuse, Keaton said.”

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