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Pregnant women in Missouri can't get divorced. Critics say it fuels domestic violence

Missouri law requires women seeking divorce to disclose whether they're pregnant — and state judges won't finalize divorces during a pregnancy.
Darya Komarova
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Getty Images
Missouri law requires women seeking divorce to disclose whether they're pregnant — and state judges won't finalize divorces during a pregnancy.

The turning point for Destonee was a car ride.

She describes a scene of emotional abuse: Pregnant with her third child, her husband yelled at her while her older two kids listened in the car. "He would call me awful things in front of them," she says. "And soon my son would call me those names too."

She made up her mind to leave him, but when she went to a lawyer to file for divorce, she was told to come back when she was no longer pregnant.

Destonee requested she be identified by only her first name. She says she still lives with abusive threats from her ex-husband. She couldn't end her marriage because Missouri law requires women seeking divorce to disclose whether they're pregnant — and state judges won't finalize divorces during a pregnancy. Established in the 1970s, the rule was intended to make sure men were financially accountable for the children they fathered.

Advocates in Missouri are now pushing to change this law, arguing that it's being weaponized against victims of domestic violence and contributes to the contraction of women's reproductive freedoms in a post-Roe v. Wade landscape.

"In Missouri, it feels as though they have really closed down every door in terms of reproductive autonomy," says Kristen Marinaccio, an attorney and expert in divorce law who has examined these kinds of laws in Missouri and other states. She says beyond the legal and financial ties of marriage, there is powerful emotional weight to legally terminating a marriage. "You might just think, well, it's a piece of paper," she says, "but that piece of paper that tells you you're no longer in this horrible marriage is really freeing for a lot of clients."

After hearing stories about survivors unable to leave marriages, state Rep. Ashley Aune introduced House Bill 2402. It would allow pregnant women to finalize divorce in Missouri.

Aune says that the law has gone unexamined for too long and that policymakers need to give women the right to leave a dangerous or even life-threatening situation. "How can you look that person in the eye and say, 'No, I think you should stay with that person,'" says Aune, a Democrat. "That's wild to me."

Another survivor of domestic violence who asked to be identified by only her initial, L. — because she says she's still in hiding from her ex-husband — describes her encounter with the legal system when she tried to end her marriage. She had been holding onto the idea of filing for divorce as an emotional life raft for her and her child. When she finally pursued it, she says, her lawyer told her it wasn't possible due to her pregnancy. "I felt absolutely defeated in that moment," she recalls.

L. returned to her abusive marriage to wait out her pregnancy. She says she slept on a tile floor in the basement the night before she gave birth because "it was the only room in the house where there was a lock."

Texas and Arkansas have similar laws. It's impossible to know how often women are unable to leave marriages due to pregnancy. Some people may not even try to file for divorce because of the law; as in Destonee's case, lawyers might simply tell them to come back when they're not pregnant.

Advocates in Missouri who work with domestic violence victims say they consistently see pregnant women who want to leave but can't, and they warn that it isn't as simple as just waiting out the pregnancy. "When they do make that decision, it's a really big deal," says Meghann Kosman, an advocate for victims at an organization called North Star Advocacy Center, north of Kansas City, Missouri.

Kosman says it takes her clients a lot of courage and sometimes multiple attempts to leave.

"We have to honor that and respect that," she says, and "work with them because they're ready in that moment to make that change." The opportunity might not present itself again.

Reproductive restrictions as weapons

Another reason advocates say divorce laws like Missouri's need to change: The law enables a form of abuse called reproductive coercion. "The abusive partner utilizes pregnancy and children as a way to control their partner," explains Christina Cherry, a program manager at a domestic violence housing program with a Kansas City-based organization called Synergy Services.

Christina Cherry works for Synergy Services, a Kansas City, Mo., organization that works with survivors of domestic violence. She says Missouri's law enables a form of abuse called reproductive coercion, where "the abusive partner utilizes pregnancy and children as a way to control their partner."
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
Christina Cherry works for Synergy Services, a Kansas City, Mo., organization that works with survivors of domestic violence. She says Missouri's law enables a form of abuse called reproductive coercion, where "the abusive partner utilizes pregnancy and children as a way to control their partner."
After turning away too many families that needed shelter, Synergy Services decided to create its own housing. The group's administrative offices are pictured.
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
After turning away too many families that needed shelter, Synergy Services decided to create its own housing. The group's administrative offices are pictured.

On this day, Cherry stands inside an old Kansas City school that her organization is renovating to provide housing for survivors of domestic violence. "These units will be our four-bedroom units," she says, gesturing to the vaulted ceiling in what was formerly the school's gymnasium. They will house families of eight. Cherry says they could potentially receive even bigger families.

The organization decided to create its own housing after turning away too many families that needed housing, especially large families due to pregnancies forced on women by their abusers. "They continue having children, but they can't afford to house them. They remain in poverty," Cherry explains.

Leaving the marriage, she says, becomes nearly impossible.

Cherry says when she heard that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, she immediately felt dread for her clients who would now have even less ability to control their pregnancies. Her organization and others like it report turning away nearly 3,000 people who needed shelter last year in the Kansas City area.

This old Kansas City school is being renovating by Synergy Services to provide housing for survivors of domestic violence.
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
This old Kansas City school is being renovating by Synergy Services to provide housing for survivors of domestic violence.
There's a particular need to provide housing for large families due to pregnancies forced on women by their abusers, according to Christina Cherry of Synergy Services. Parts of the old school building will eventually house families of eight.
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
There's a particular need to provide housing for large families due to pregnancies forced on women by their abusers, according to Christina Cherry of Synergy Services. Parts of the old school building will eventually house families of eight.

Missouri isn't the only place struggling with this issue in a post-Roe world. "We're seeing lots more people citing reproductive coercion, sexual coercion, reproductive abuse or pregnancy coercion as part of their experience," says Marium Durrani, vice president of policy for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Her organization reports a nearly 100% increase in hotline calls across the U.S. in the year after the Supreme Court ended the federal right to abortion. "I mean, we are getting calls that are very explicitly like 'I am pregnant.' 'I am trying to escape.' 'I cannot get resources where I am or in my state or my locality,'" Durrani says.

Bill that would abolish Missouri's divorce rule isn't certain to pass

In Missouri, it's not clear whether Aune's legislation will pass, despite international media attention. "I don't honestly feel very hopeful," says Aune, who notes that passing any kind of legislation is difficult for Democrats in Missouri's Republican-dominated statehouse.

Aune is more optimistic about the useful conversation she says she recently had with Missouri judges, who she hopes will be more aware of the dynamics around abuse when making decisions involving divorce and pregnancy. The bill's passage, she says, is still possible in a future legislative session.

It took Destonee three months after her baby was born to leave her husband. Her ex still has partial custody of the children, an arrangement she says is still very difficult to navigate. But her overwhelming feeling, she says, is of being free. She's proud of herself and of the person who was "so strong and didn't even know it at the time."

So strong, she says, she saved herself and her children even without the support of her state.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]