SHAWNNA HUGHES SAT in the courtroom last May, bounced her new baby in her lap, shushed her two young sons (they were apparently tired of the silence-only courtroom scene), and said a prayer. Her attorney, Terri Sloyer from the Center for Justice, was arguing before the State of Washington Court of Appeals in Spokane that pregnancy should not preclude a woman from getting divorced. Last year, Hughes started the paperwork for a divorce from her abusive husband and then got pregnant by another man before the divorce process was complete. The trial court had denied her divorce because she was pregnant ["A Difficult Pregnancy," A. J. Glusman, Dec 23, 2004].
The hearing wasn't going well. The three-judge appellate panel kept interrupting Sloyer. They wouldn't let her get to her most important arguments about the unfairness of delaying a woman's divorce just because she's pregnant. Hughes was right to worry. The court ruled last week that Hughes could not divorce her husband, a man who had previously spent time in jail for domestic-violence charges brought against him by Hughes, and who is currently serving time for federal drug convictions.
This may seem outrageous. The Stranger's breaking news story about Hughes last December kicked off a media shitstorm—Hughes and her case quickly landed on Good Morning America—and led Seattle-area State House Representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) to pass a law making it illegal to deny a woman a divorce just because she's pregnant. The court of appeals' August 2 negative ruling even said as much, noting, "Denying a marriage dissolution because a woman is pregnant would violate Washington's Equal Rights Act." Unfortunately, this law did nothing to help Hughes. The court of appeals objected to a separate issue. The court objected to the fact that Hughes did not tell her husband or the state that she was pregnant.
Under the Washington Uniform Paternity Act, Carlos Hughes, Shawnna Hughes's husband, should have been notified of his "legal father" status to give him an opportunity to be heard in court regarding his rights. According to the court, Sloyer, the ACLU, the Northwest Women's Law Center, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and a host of others who were pissed about Shawnna Hughes's legal predicament, including me, had missed the point. The point wasn't that Shawnna Hughes was pregnant, but rather that she was pregnant and had failed to inform her husband or the state during her attempt to get a divorce. The state lawyers argued, and the court agreed, that Shawnna Hughes could not have a divorce if all the relevant parties (like her husband and the state, which is responsible for enforcing child support) were not informed of her pregnancy.
When Shawnna Hughes learned of the ruling she was livid. "In all honestly, I'm just really pissed," she says. "I don't know how I'm supposed to get divorced now."
How is she supposed to get a divorce now? At this point paternity has been established, and Carlos Hughes has been notified. The Stranger could not reach the state's lawyers for an answer. Sloyer says the Center for Justice will probably appeal Shawnna Hughes's case to the Washington State Supreme Court.
Hopefully, another issue that's been overlooked throughout this case will emerge in the discussions at the next level: The procedural requirements for women seeking divorce—in Shawnna Hughes's case, notifying an abusive husband—may be unsafe. Couldn't it be dangerous to require pregnant abused women to inform their abusive husbands of their pregnancies in order to get a divorce? According to studies, victims of domestic violence are at an increased risk when they are pregnant. "I have some concerns about the way the divorce forms are written in that they require women to say whether they are pregnant," says Sara Ainsworth of the Northwest Women's Law Center. "There are plenty of circumstances in which a woman could be put in danger where she has to add notice on top of trying to get a divorce."
If protecting victims of domestic violence is an aim of the state, then requiring women to tell their abusive husbands that they are pregnant seems like a bad idea. It would be nice if courts would weigh this issue against the husband's right to know.