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Pregnant women in some states aren't permitted to legally finalize divorces

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A decades-old law, Missouri law, that may prevent a pregnant woman from getting divorced is being challenged by lawmakers in that state. A new bill addresses the concerns of people who have lived with domestic violence. They say the current law can be weaponized against them. Katia Riddle visited Missouri and brings us this report, and here's where I need to tell you that this piece includes descriptions of abusive behavior.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For the decade she was married, Destonee says she endured emotional abuse. Often in front of her children, her husband would berate her.

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DESTONEE: He would call me awful things in front of them. It was just very degrading and soon, like, my son would call me those names, too.

RIDDLE: NPR is not using Destonee's last name. She says she still lives with threats from her ex-husband. The turning point for her came after one especially horrible car ride. Her husband was yelling at her. Her two kids were in the car. She was pregnant with her third child. That's when she decided to take action.

DESTONEE: I went to a lawyer, and he said, yeah, you can't do anything until you have the baby.

RIDDLE: Her hands were tied because of Missouri's 1970s law. It requires women seeking divorce to disclose whether they're pregnant, and state judges won't finalize divorces during a pregnancy. Another domestic violence survivor describes a similar encounter with the state's legal system. She says it was one of the lowest times in her life.

L: I felt absolutely defeated in that moment.

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RIDDLE: NPR is only using her initial, L. She is in hiding from her ex-husband. L says when she was navigating her abusive marriage, she kept the possibility of filing for divorce in the back of her mind. It was her life raft if things got too bad.

L: I thought, like, this is the only protection that I knew that was out there for us, and so I just literally thought, there's nothing else out there.

RIDDLE: She returned to her abusive marriage to wait out her pregnancy.

L: I was yelled at, slapped, pushed, called every name in the book. I slept downstairs the night before my second child was born, on the tile floor in our basement, because that was the only room in the house or the safest room in the house where there was a lock, that my husband could not come down into that space.

RIDDLE: It's stories like this that inspired Missouri State representative Ashley Aune, a Democrat, to introduce House Bill 2402 a few months ago.

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ASHLEY AUNE: When I learned about all of this, I was shocked to learn that Missouri is not allowing divorces while women are pregnant.

RIDDLE: Aune's bill would change that. Missouri's current law was established at a time when women had less financial freedom. It was meant to ensure men provided for any children they had while married. Now, says Aune, it's not serving this purpose, and it's gone unexamined for decades.

AUNE: How can you look that person in the eye and say, no, I think you should stay with that person? That's wild to me.

RIDDLE: Texas and Arkansas have similar laws. It's impossible to know how often women are unable to leave marriages due to pregnancy. Some people may not even try to file for divorce because of the law, or lawyers might just tell them to come back when they're not pregnant. Advocates who work with domestic violence victims say they consistently see people who would like to leave, but can't.

MEGHANN KOSMAN: They do make that decision. It's a really big deal.

RIDDLE: Meghann Kosman works at an organization called North Star Advocacy Center, outside Kansas City, Mo. She helps victims when they're ready to leave their abusers. Kosman says it takes her clients a lot of courage and sometimes multiple attempts to leave.

KOSMAN: And we have to honor that and respect that and work with them, because they're ready in that moment to make that change.

RIDDLE: Another reason advocates say divorce laws like Missouri's need to change - they enable a form of abuse called reproductive coercion.

CHRISTINA CHERRY: The abusive partner utilizes pregnancy and children as a way to control their partner.

RIDDLE: Christina Cherry is a program manager at a domestic violence housing program with an organization called Synergy Services. She sees this issue often - abusers who keep their partners pregnant in order to keep them married. Cherry is standing in front of an old Kansas City school that's being renovated to provide housing for survivors of domestic violence.

CHERRY: So we're going to have a basketball court here.

RIDDLE: Inside the school's old gymnasium, Cherry gestures to the vaulted ceilings. Often, women come to them with many children, as a result of these forced pregnancies.

CHERRY: Behind these units will be our four bedroom units, extending that way.

RIDDLE: So a four-bedroom could house a family of eight?

CHERRY: Eight, yeah, which has been - I will say that's been the maximum that I've served, not to say that we wouldn't serve more.

RIDDLE: Cherry says, when she heard the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, she immediately felt dread for her clients. Now, they would have even less ability to control their pregnancies.

CHERRY: So, you know, they continue having children, but they can't afford to house them. There's not enough housing. They remain in poverty.

RIDDLE: Missouri is not the only place struggling with reproductive coercion, especially in a post-Roe world. Marium Durrani is with the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

MARIUM DURRANI: We're seeing lots and lots more people citing reproductive coercion, sexual coercion or reproductive abuse or pregnancy coercion as part of their experience.

RIDDLE: Durrani says they saw a nearly 100% increase in hotline calls across the country in the year after the Supreme Court ended the federal right to abortion.

DURRANI: I mean, we are getting calls that are very explicitly like, I am pregnant, I am trying to escape, I cannot get resources where I am or in my state or my locality.

RIDDLE: It's not clear if this will change in Missouri, even with Ashley Aune's recent bill. The Democrats struggle to pass any kind of legislation here because Republicans have a lock on the State House. The two Missouri women interviewed for this story did both eventually end their marriages. It took Destonee three months after her baby was born.

DESTONEE: I think in July, July 1, we packed up everything that I could and we moved into a duplex.

RIDDLE: How are you feeling now?

DESTONEE: Free. Honestly, I have way more confidence than I ever did, because I went through it alone. And, like, even now, looking back, I did it by myself, so I'm really proud of the person that was so strong and didn't even know it at the time.

RIDDLE: Strong enough, she says, to do it even without the support of her state. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Missouri.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Katia Riddle
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