ACLU Urges Court To Uphold Pregnant Woman's Right To Divorce

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The ACLU of Washington, the National ACLU's Women's Rights Project, and the Northwest Women's Law Center today filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Washington Court of Appeals backing a woman's right to end her marriage regardless of whether she is pregnant. In the appeal of a case that has drawn media attention -- and shocked reactions -- around the nation, the organizations are supporting a Spokane woman seeking a divorce from her abusive husband.

"Domestic violence is a widespread problem in our society. It is especially difficult and often dangerous for pregnant women. Rights should never be based on a person's reproductive choices. A woman's ability to divorce simply should not depend on whether she is pregnant," said ACLU-WA Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.

"In addition to the domestic violence issues, the Court of Appeals must consider and acknowledge that all people in Washington have the right to be divorced." said Lisa Stone, Executive Director of the Northwest Women's Law Center. "Preventing Ms. Hughes or any woman from divorcing because she is pregnant not only endangers her, it also discriminates against her in violation of our Constitution."

Shawnna Hughes was married to Carlos Hughes, and they have two minor children. Mr. Hughes became abusive, and he was ultimately imprisoned for crimes of domestic violence. Concerned that Mr. Hughes would soon be released from prison and fearing renewed violence, Ms. Hughes filed a Petition for Dissolution in April 2004 and several weeks later obtained a default order entitling her to obtain a divorce. Mr. Hughes did not object to the divorce petition.

During the summer of 2004, Ms. Hughes became pregnant through her relationship with another man; the baby is due in March 2005. In October, a court commissioner signed the final orders to implement the divorce. Spokane County Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine revoked the dissolution decree when he learned from the County Prosecutor's Office that Ms. Hughes is pregnant. In his oral ruling, the judge said that pregnant women could not divorce their husbands until after giving birth. The judge believed he was acting to protect the interest of the future child by insuring that he or she would not be born out of wedlock. The Spokane County Prosecutor's Office, acting on behalf of the state, agreed with the judge. State officials asserted that granting the divorce would leave the state unable to pursue the father for financial support.

However, there is no statutory authority for the judge's action. Washington is a no-fault divorce state, and the Court has no discretion to deny a properly made petition for dissolution. The judge's action reflected an archaic view of illegitimacy. By law, a child born to parents who are not married to each other has the same rights as a child whose parents are married. Further, the state's Parentage Act provides that any questions about parentage can be resolved by a paternity test, and the man determined to be the father will have financial responsibility regardless of marital status.

The friend-of-the-court brief was written by ACLU-WA board member Trilby Robinson-Dorn, Northwest Women's Law Center cooperating attorney Kristin Boraas, and Law Center staff attorney Nancy Sapiro. Several organizations advocating for women's rights have joined the brief, including the Refugee and Immigrant Forum; the Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence; NARAL Pro-Choice Washington; the National Coalition against Domestic Violence; Washington NOW; the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs; Stop Family Violence; and the Family Violence Prevention Fund.