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If Republicans Want to Keep Kids Safe, Why Don’t They Ban Child Marriage?

Seems the party would rather attack marginalized groups than pass common-sense reform

The American right justifies some of its most hateful objectives by invoking the innocence and vulnerability of children. It’s too dangerous for kids to learn about the legacy of slavery and racism in this country. They must be protected from the reality of LGBTQ identities. They’re forbidden to read Toni Morrison or a graphic novel depicting the Holocaust. And under no circumstances should they receive clear education on sex or their own developing bodies. By the way, anything else you disapprove of can be blamed for the (fake) child-trafficking epidemic.

That concern for children’s welfare, however, seems to evaporate when conservatives can’t tie it to a culture war issue. They’re fine with overworking teens at minimum wage if it solves a “labor shortage,” or sentencing them to life in prison without parole in order to look tough on crime. But perhaps their most galling position is that we shouldn’t set a minimum age for legal marriage. In fact, sometimes the GOP goes so hard with the anti-gay agenda they wind up trying to eliminate an age requirement that’s already on the books. Currently, in the state of Tennessee, you can marry as young as 17 with a parent’s consent — but a new proposal defining common-law marriage as between “one man” and “one woman,” apparently crafted for insecure homophobes, has no such provision, leaving open the possibility of forced child marriage. 

The fearmongering over the sexual predators that Republicans believe are all around us, their horrific appetites supposedly enabled by Democratic policies, has not extended to the question of matrimonial law. In many states, the minimum marriage age is below the age of consent, meaning that a minor can marry an adult who would be committing a crime by having sex with them in any other circumstances. Only six states, all blue, have explicitly banned the marriage of children under 18, in line with the U.S. State Department’s acknowledgement that forced or coerced marriage of a minor — at least in foreign countries — is a form of child abuse. 

Not infrequently, an underage girl is wed to her rapist after becoming pregnant by him, a loophole used to whitewash assault through the complicity of “embarrassed” parents and the courts. The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that aids immigrants fleeing gender-based violence, describes the “devastating, lifelong consequences” of marrying as a minor, even by “choice,” including higher risk of poverty, “greater vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence, increased medical and mental health problems, higher dropout rates from high school and college.” A global study on child marriage noted its links to worse rates of depression, sexually transmitted infection and maternal mortality. Any justification for it is extremely flimsy at best.

Even if the scale of the problem were small — and it isn’t, since 300,000 kids were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018 — taking action to prohibit these unions would be simple and morally sound. But year after year, Republican lawmakers have kneecapped such measures at state and federal levels, sometimes on the unfounded pretext that it would lead to more abortions, other times in the interest of “small government” and in one instance to avoid contradicting a legal challenge to same-sex marriage. And although Idaho, for example, did eventually establish a minimum age of 16, the final version of the law removed the need for a judge’s approval; and again, Tennessee may effectively nullify their ban on marriage for minors under 17 after the previous governor signed it just four years ago. Progress can always be unraveled.

Wouldn’t a political party that never misses an opportunity to claim they’re keeping your kids safe want to end the exemptions that allow adults (usually men) to trap children (usually girls) in a dangerous situation? Isn’t this a real-life example of the human trafficking that legislators mostly discuss in the vaguest of terms to advance unrelated causes? Yet legislation like the Child Marriage Prevention Act, which, as advocacy group Unchained At Last points out, “harms no one except child rapists, costs nothing and protects children from a human rights abuse,” is introduced by Democrats only to die on the vine, without support from Republican majorities.

Might be interesting to ask members of Congress and statehouses who talk like Rep. Anthony Sabatini here — given their professed interest in saving the youth from sexual indecency and exploitation — where they stand on child marriage. After all, someone charging entire demographics with grooming and pedophilia should have no problem denouncing marriage between a 15-year-old and a 30-year-old. 

If not, it’s their turn to face those accusations.