Alabama allows rapists to retain parental rights, claim custody of offspring as victims suffer under abortion ban: Report
There is no statute in Alabama terminating parental rights for a person found to have conceived a child by rape or incest
Rape crisis advocate Portia Shepherd recounted how she was shocked when a young woman came to the Family Services' North Alabama office last year for help. She was raped by her step-uncle when she was just 15, and now he was getting out of jail following a drug conviction. What's more? He wanted to be a part of their child's life.
According to The Washington Post, the alleged rapist could be granted custody in the state of Alabama. “It’s the craziest thing I ever heard in my life,” said Shepherd. “On the state level, people were shocked. How could Alabama even be missing this law?”
There is no statute in Alabama terminating parental rights for a person found to have conceived a child by rape or incest. Many critics did not know of this fact until it gained fresh relevance after the state adopted the nation's strictest abortion ban in May this year.
According to The Post, the state has outlawed abortion for victims of sexual assault and called for doctors who perform the procedure to be jailed, with an exception in case the mother's health is at serious risk.
Abortion rights activists in Alabama fear that the strict abortion law could reduce access to the procedure and force rape victims to bear children and share custody with their attackers. They have since challenged the law in court.
When Alabama considered a bill last month to end parental rights in cases of rape that result in conception, the legislature changed the language to limit the law to cases in which people sexually assault their children.
According to State Senator Vivian Figures, the language that was removed could have excluded boys who were victims of sexual assault as they couldn't get pregnant. She said she only recently came to know Alabama lacked a statute preventing rapists from gaining custody of their offspring, and told The Post she now plans to introduce a bill to address the same in the next legislative session.
Figures, who voted against the state’s abortion ban, said, “It’s just flat out ugly, unfair and even dangerous to these mothers and children,"
At the same time, some anti-abortion activists have pushed hard to pass such laws.
Anti-abortion family attorney Rebecca Kiessling, who herself was conceived by rape, said women who choose to keep their pregnancies are protected by the law.
“Maybe they wouldn’t abort or give the child up for adoption if they knew they were protected,” she said.
Meanwhile, laws terminating parental rights in cases of rape have stirred up a sizeable controversy.
Family courts being allowed to sever parental rights based on rape accusations is “an open invitation to fraud” per Ned Holstein, board chair for the National Parents Organisation, which advocates for shared parenting after divorce or separation.
“Taking a person’s child away is a grievous act,” he said. “And if it is done to an innocent parent, you are also denying the child a fit parent forever and putting her into the sole custody of a ruthless parent who is willing to fabricate a heinous accusation.”
Speaking of his organization, he said that even if a person is convicted of rape, “there is merit on both sides of this issue, and we have no position on it, either way."
Aside from Alabama, the only other state having no law terminating parental rights in rape cases is Minnesota.
Following the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act in 2015, many states adopted such statutes as they received additional grants from the center to help sexual assault victims if courts were allowed to end parental rights when there was “clear and convincing evidence” that a child was conceived by rape.
Using Justice Department data, the National Conference of State Legislatures was able to conclude that more than half of the 50 states already use the “clear and convincing evidence” standard.