Yesterday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a law banning child marriage—a prohibition that many residents were likely surprised to learn wasn’t already on the books. Prior to this law, marriage was legal starting at age 15. Now, 15 and 16-year-olds can no longer get married in Maryland. And at 17, you can get married only with parental consent and the blessing of a court.
A 2021 Capital Gazette story estimates that 80-100 minors are married in Maryland each year, the vast majority of them teen girls marrying older men. Additionally, the Washington Post reports that Maryland has recently become something of a destination for child marriage, as couples from more restrictive states flocked to Maryland to wed.
Calling Maryland’s laws “archaic,” a February Post op-ed cites the story of a Maryland woman, Skyler, who says she was forcibly married in 2009 at the age of 16. In testimony before Maryland lawmakers (recorded in a pamphlet from the Tahirih Justice Center), Skyler claims that her abusive mother coerced her into marriage, introducing her to a man “twice her age” who would become her husband just one week later. Skyler says she went to the courthouse in Elkton for her wedding, where the clerks apparently asked no questions—in fact, Skyler remembers a clerk telling her to “wipe them tears” and “cheer up,” because this would be “the happiest day of your life.” Actually, Skyler says, “my whole life was stolen” that day. Instead of being a normal teen, she says she was trapped in an abusive and traumatic marriage that proved difficult to escape.
The new law, which would prevent situations like Skyler’s, had a circuitous journey to Hogan’s desk due to controversy among legislators and advocacy groups over the bill’s potential effects—both intended and not. Some opponents were predictable (the Post op-ed claims that one Republican State Senator “clutch[ed] his pearls” that a pregnant teen would, under this bill, have to give birth out of wedlock), while other opponents were more surprising. The Baltimore Sun reports that a similar bill died in the state legislature in 2018 amid opposition from women’s groups who apparently feared that raising the marriage age could open the door to restricting teen reproductive rights and create other unintended consequences for vulnerable young women.
The Sun quotes Diana Philip, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, making the case that some pregnant teens “are going to choose to marry in order to access certain services and certain rights,” like health insurance. In addition, the Sun reported that some of the bill’s opponents feared that preventing teens from marrying might trap them in bad situations: according to the Sun, teens in Maryland can’t legally emancipate themselves from their parents or guardians, so taking away marriage could remove one of the limited lifelines available to young people fleeing abuse.