Rules of Disengagement
Stranger Story Sparks Legislative Reform
More important than media coverage, however, is the fact that the story ticked off Seattle-area state house legislator Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Ballard). "Judges cannot deny divorces simply on the pregnancy of the woman," Dickerson says. "This isn't the 1950s." And Dickerson, who chairs the Juvenile Justice and Family Law Committee in Olympia, is doing something about it.
As we reported, Spokane Judge Paul Bastine rescinded Shawnna Hughes' divorce last November because Hughes was pregnant. The judge ruled that Hughes could not divorce before her child was born because her child would be born in "limbo." According to Bastine, the rights of the child trump any rights the state's Dissolution (of Marriage) Act bestows on mothers--meaning, in his opinion, pregnant women can't get divorced until after their babies are born.
Dickerson is proposing language that would make sure nothing can trump a woman's right to divorce. Should Dickerson's proposed amendment be adopted, the Dissolution Act will read emphatically, "In considering a petition for dissolution, a court may not use the petitioner's pregnancy as a basis for denying the decree of dissolution."
Dickerson, whose bevy of cosigners all hail from Western Washington, anticipates that there may be some opposition from conservatives. "The objection would be that it would make it easier to divorce," Dickerson says. Dickerson points out that the number of divorces the bill will affect is relatively small.
If Representative Dickerson's amendment is adopted, Hughes' predicament would no longer be a precedent for denying divorce to pregnant women who want out of a relationship. (In Hughes' case, her husband had a record of domestic violence against her.) When Hughes found out what Dickerson was proposing, she was thrilled. "It's fabulous. I want to thank her for giving financially struggling women back our rights." Hughes' pregnancy tripped up her divorce in part because she was on state assistance.
"I think the judge misinterpreted the law," Dickerson says, "and we're going to make it crystal clear that pregnant woman can get divorced."