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Editorial: Teens can't make lifelong commitments. Missouri must ban marriage under age 18

The Kansas City Star Editorial Board, The Kansas City Star on

Published in Op Eds

Missouri doesn’t have a stellar record when it comes to protecting young people — young women, especially — from the harms of marrying far too young.

Less than a decade ago, the Show-Me State was known as a “destination wedding spot for 15-year-old child brides.” That’s because it was issuing marriage licenses to people who had traveled hundreds of miles or more, from places like Florida, Idaho and Utah, and who were way too young to legally get married in their own states.

Thanks to a Kansas City Star investigation exposing the issue, the Missouri General Assembly eventually changed the law. Now the state forbids marriage licenses to anyone under the age of 16, and requires parental permission for 16- and 17-year-olds who want to marry. What’s more, no one under the age of 18 is allowed a license to marry anyone over the age of 21 — a necessary hedge against predatory relationships between teen girls and much older men.

That’s a good start.

State Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Scott City Republican, and state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, this year have spearheaded legislation that would completely prohibit anyone under 18 — anyone who is not yet legally an adult, after all — from obtaining a marriage license. We think they make a compelling case.

“In Missouri, you have to be 18 to sign a legally binding contract,” Rehder wrote in a Star guest commentary in March. “Yet, we allow parents to sign a lifelong commitment on behalf of their children. This makes no sense. It’s time to end child marriage.”

Rehder and Arthur’s colleagues in the Missouri Senate agreed with that logic. Last month, they voted nearly unanimously — 37 to 1 — for the bill. But the legislative session is winding down this week without any action in the Missouri House: The legislation is being held up in committee by a few conservative opponents.

“Why,” asked Rep. Dean Van Schoiack of Savannah, “is the government getting involved in people’s lives like this?”

It’s a reasonable question. The answer? Getting married before reaching adulthood doesn’t often end well for the young women involved.

Up to 80% of these unions end in divorce

“Girls in the U.S. who marry in their teens are more likely to drop out of high school, never graduate from college, and end up living in poverty, and they are at greater risk of psychiatric disorders,” Fraidy Reiss, founder of the anti-child-marriage outfit Unchained at Last, wrote in 2021 for the peer-reviewed Journal of Adolescent Health. Rehder, in her piece for The Star, said as many as 80% of those marriages end in divorce.

 

That makes intuitive sense: Teens are still working out the ideas and identities that will guide them through life. Most adolescents we know are ill-equipped to make the lifetime commitment that marriage demands. Sure, some of those marriages — as Van Schoiack pointed out — surely do work out well. They would seem to be more the exception than the rule, however.

The worst objection to the bill, though, comes from Rep. Hardy Billington of Poplar Bluff.

“My opinion is that if someone (wants to) get married at 17, and they’re going to have a baby and they cannot get married, then …chances of abortion are extremely high,” he told The Star.

Missouri already bans abortion, though. Using the state’s marriage laws as yet another backdoor method of cementing that ban is a bad idea that gives more weight to conservative culture war concerns than to the well-being of young women.

Now, we don’t agree with Arthur, who told The Star that any opposition to the bill is “an excuse to protect predators.” There can be reasonable concerns, including how the legislation would affect teen parents trying to raise a child together.

But we’re ultimately persuaded by the underlying logic of the bill: Adult decisions are for adults to make.

“We’re not arguing that you wake up on your 18th birthday with a newfound wisdom and maturity and the ability to choose a life partner,” Reiss told The 19th News last year. “It’s about legal capacity: You wake up on your 18th birthday with legal rights of adulthood.”

The Missouri House has until Friday, when the session ends, to let us know if it agrees.

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©2024 The Kansas City Star. Visit at kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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