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Kentucky Senate Hears Bill to End Child Marriage

The bill had been delayed twice before.

Man Holding Child's Hand
Man or father wearing gold wedding ring holding a child's hand, Syosset, New York, 1945. (Photo by Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images)
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Lawmakers in Kentucky are making strides to end child marriage across their state. Senate Bill 48, also known as the Child Bride Bill, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and will now be voted on in the Senate.

The bill bans all marriages for those 16 and younger. Current law allows exceptions to be made in the event of pregnancy. Critics argue that in Kentucky, where the age of consent for sex is 16, pregnancy shouldn’t be justification for marriage—it should be considered evidence of a sex offense.

This new law would also give judges the final say in underage marriage, but would require them to review the circumstances and have a private conversation with any 17-year-old intending to marry. Supporters of the bill hope this will identify any coercion and prevent young men and women from entering into a marriage they do not want.

One of the most vocal advocates for SB 48 has been Louisville native Donna Pollard, who was herself a child bride, married off at age 16 to a man who had been sexually abusing her for years. Her mother, who was married at age 13, pushed for the marriage, which led to more abuse before a divorce when Pollard was just 20.

Now, Pollard is happy the bill is finally moving through the Kentucky legislature. “I am absolutely thrilled,” she said after it won unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

It took a bit of a fight for Senate Bill 48 to be heard: last week, news broke that concerns over parents’ rights had delayed the bill’s progress twice before. In particular, the Kentucky Family Foundation slammed the bill in press release, saying, “it shuts parents out of the decision making process.”

This set off an uproar on social media, as supporters of the bill claimed that the opposition was in support of child marriage, "kids marrying adults," and "the legalized rape of children."

But at Tuesday’s hearing, the Kentucky Family Foundation clarified its stance. "We did not come out in opposition to the bill," said Martin Cothran, a foundation spokesman. "We just wanted to get it right."

A current study at University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work shows that these concerns of teens marrying other teens with parental consent might be largely unfounded. Researchers looked at about 10,000 Kentucky marriages between 2000 and 2015 that involved at least one minor. Two instances stood out to Pollard: a 3-year-old girl marrying a 33-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl marrying a 52-year-old man.

See more: Meet the Former Child Bride Lobbying to End Child Marriage in the U.S.

"Teens marrying teens is not the case," she said.

Further, the revised bill requires an affidavit signed by parents that certifies they give their consent. Judges are required to consider education level, criminal history, and existing domestic violence or sex offenses, but pregnancy is not to be considered a valid reason for underage marriage, according to the new law.

If the revised bill passes in the Senate, it will move on to the House.

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