Rayhons case reveals law’s flaws

Jury selection took place this week in the trial of Henry Rayhons, a former Iowa lawmaker who stands accused of sexual abuse against his ailing wife, Donna.

The case hinges on whether or not Donna, who was in a care facility due to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, was able to consent to sexual activity and, of course, if sexual activity did occur.

The couple, both in their 70s, married in 2007. They each had children from previous marriages and, as it often is in end of life situations, the presence of grown children was not trivial.

Early last year, as Donna’s mental capability eroded and safety questions arose, two of her daughters suggested placement in a care facility. Henry balked, later explaining he did not want to be separated and that he believed home-based care might be an option. Still, it wasn’t too much longer until the daughters moved their mother to such a facility.

Donna was given a cognitive test and the determination was made that she could no longer consent to sexual activity. The findings were shared with Henry. It was Donna’s roommate, about a week after Henry had been informed of the assessment findings, who reported that Henry met with his wife behind a privacy curtain.

The police were called. Donna underwent a rape kit. It was weeks later, three days after Donna’s funeral in August, that Henry was arrested.

National experts interviewed by the media describe the case as one of the first, if not the first, of its kind. Even without the political rubbernecking (Henry Rayhons served in the Iowa House), it would be garnering attention.

As a society, we don’t necessarily like to think about older people being sexually active — unless, of course, we are the sexually active members of that demographic. Our broad distaste for open discussions regarding end of life care and expectations has been widely publicized. When these two already uncomfortable discussions are combined, then mixed with the legalities of dementia and consent and set against a blended family backdrop, national headlines should have been expected.

According to a 25-year-old Iowa law, the bonds of marriage do not automatically provide consent. That is, rape is possible within a marriage. The law also says sex with a person suffering from “mental defect or incapacity” is sexual abuse. What constitutes such a defect or incapacity is less clear.

No matter which way the gavel falls, the dispute should have Iowa’s baby boomers shouting for reform. On one hand, we have a system that failed to protect an elderly woman incapable of choosing sexual intimacy. On the other, we have a system that did not protect the rights of married adults to be sexually intimate. On the sidelines are grown children, likely with their own aversions to contemplating their parents’ sexuality, trying to guess what mom or dad would want.

It’s a sad state of affairs any way you look at it.

Lawmakers, no doubt with an eye toward potential scandal and the next election, have declined to comment. So, despite Iowa’s aging population and the high probability that this won’t be the last time families face similar issues, discussions aren’t taking place.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 11, 2015.