Supreme Court ruling sparks alarm over Missouri law banning pregnant women from getting divorced

Under an old Missouri law from 1973, a woman cannot get a divorce finalized if she is pregnant; she can file for divorce, but it won’t be finalized as long as she is pregnant. In 2022, abortion rights defenders are worried about the law’s ramifications now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after 49 years.

Journalist Anna Spoerre, in an article published by the Kansas City Star on July 20, explains, “In Missouri, divorce cases cannot be finalized if a woman is pregnant, since a custody agreement must first be in place, multiple attorneys told The Star. That custody agreement cannot be completed until the child is born.”

Before the High Court struck down Roe v. Wade with its 6-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a divorce in Missouri could be finalized after a woman had an abortion. The Roe decision, handed down by the Burger Court in 1973, established abortion as a national right. But with Roe overturned, abortion is no longer a national right, leaving the legality or illegality of abortion to be determined on a state-by-state basis. Republican-controlled Missouri is an anti-choice state.

“The state law, while old, gained renewed attention after the Supreme Court, on June 24, overturned Roe v. Wade, repealing the constitutional right to abortion,” Spoerre reports. “The decision immediately made abortion illegal in Missouri. While many call the restriction outdated, none of those interviewed, including advocates, survivors and attorneys, know of any efforts to change the law.”

Jess Piper, a Democrat who is running for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, has been speaking out about the Missouri law and warning that post-Roe, it could encourage women to stay in abusive relationships. On May 12 on Twitter, Piper posted, “Fact: you can’t get a divorce finalized if pregnant in Missouri. Forced pregnancies can prolong abusive situations.” And the following day, on May 13, Piper tweeted, “If you do get pregnant during a divorce, the husband is the presumed father which creates all kinds of issues. Women are often treated as property and patronized in my state.”

Spoerre observes that “many people” didn’t know about Missouri’s law until they read Piper tweets.

“Many people replied with disbelief,” Spoerre reports. “Others said they knew from personal experience. She did too. At 34, Piper divorced her husband. It was not an abusive relationship. Her attorney at the time warned her not to get pregnant.”

According to Spoerre, “eight questions” are “asked of everyone filing for divorce in Missouri.”

“One of them is whether ‘the wife is pregnant,'” Spoerre explains. “If the answer is yes, the divorce proceedings can continue if the attorney chooses, but cannot be finalized until the woman is no longer pregnant. That is because, according to Missouri statute, the court must first establish paternity of a child before a divorce can be finalized, said Shannon Gordon, a family law attorney practicing in the Kansas City metro.”

Spoerre adds, “Due to a statutory presumption that a baby born during a marriage is the child of the husband, a DNA test is often completed after the child is born in order to establish paternity in court. Then, divorce proceedings can continue. The reason for all this, ultimately, is child support considerations, Gordon said.”

According to Gordon, the Missouri law makes no exception for survivors of domestic violence.

“We oftentimes see an abused spouse not have the financial means to establish a home,” Gordon told the Star. “Being legally entitled to things like money — and actually having the money — are two very different things, particularly when a case is ongoing.”


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