Incentives speed Iowa bill to terminate parental rights of rapists

This is the most disgusting example possible of state lawmakers first ignoring and then profiting from a morally abhorrent problem.

Back in 2012, when U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., waxed poetic about “legitimate rape,” the nation was yet again embroiled in a debate about abortion rights. Specifically, if abortion was illegal, should a woman’s health or sexual assault warrant exceptions.

Akin was widely, and rightfully, chastised for suggesting that rape didn’t exist and, if it did, women couldn’t get pregnant as a result of it.

Lost within the fanfare of ignorant comments uttered during an election year were the voices of women who had been raped, did become pregnant and made a choice. Too often those choices were made more difficult by laws that allow accused and convicted attackers to claim child custody rights.

Things have changed since then, when 31 states including Iowa allowed child visitation and custody rights to rapists. By 2014, only 23 states continued the stance.

The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm the day after the caucuses in Des Moines on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016.
The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm the day after the caucuses in Des Moines on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Now, four years down the road, Iowa remains one of 15 states that believes it is OK for rape victims to be forever tethered to their attackers through a child.

And, yes, Iowa lawmakers are aware. They know women have been raped, given birth and have had to relive the horrific circumstances of that child’s conception while fighting custody or visitation suits. They’ve known it even as they have repeatedly proposed state laws to outlaw most contraceptives and all abortion services in Iowa ­­— services about half the state’s sexual assault victims choose if they become pregnant.

The cynic in me wonders how many of those women chose abortion partly because Iowa’s custody policy creates an incentive.

Whether due to an inexplicable distrust of raped women or misguided want to monetarily pursue biological fathers for government assistance payments, lawmakers have ignored pleas to reverse the situation. Until this year.

Members of the Iowa House unanimously passed a bill Monday that gives victims of rape-related pregnancies an easier way to cut off their attacker’s parental rights. It is expected to likewise find support in the Senate.

So, what changed?

In June of last year, President Barack Obama signed a federal law, the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, that awards grant money to states that pass laws making it easier for victims of rape to strip assailants of parental rights.

Instead of listening to victims’ advocates, who have long sought the civil burden of proof standard “preponderance of evidence,” the Iowa law provides the bare minimum needed to access the dangling federal carrot. Iowa victims will need to meet “clear and convincing evidence,” the next highest level of proof.

Clearly, it’s a good thing that Iowa lawmakers have finally decided to protect women and their offspring from a lifetime of unnecessary and painful exposure. The measure should be quickly approved by the Senate and signed by the governor.

But the fact that it took what amounts to a federal bribe for the Iowa Legislature to correct a morally abhorrent problem they’ve known about for years is shameful and nothing to celebrate.


This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 12, 2016. Photo credit: Andy Abeyta/The Gazette