ACLU and Northwest Women's Law Center Back Washington Woman's Right To Divorce

March 10, 2005 12:00 am

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Spokane Judge Denies Woman Divorce Because She is Pregnant


SPOKANE, WA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and the Northwest Women’s Law Center today filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the right of a Spokane woman to obtain a divorce from her abusive husband who was convicted of assaulting her. The woman was denied a petition for divorce by Spokane County because she is pregnant.

“Domestic violence is a widespread problem in our society, and it is especially difficult and dangerous for pregnant women,” said ACLU of Washington Legal Program Director Julya Hampton. “Rights should never be based on a person’s reproductive choices. A woman’s ability to divorce simply should not depend on whether she is pregnant.”

During her husband’s yearlong prison sentence, 27-year-old Shawnna Hughes became pregnant through her relationship with another man. Concerned that her abusive husband would be released from jail and revert to his violent behavior, Hughes filed a petition for divorce in April 2004. Although her husband did not object to the divorce petition, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine denied the petition. In his ruling against Hughes, Judge Bastine said that pregnant women could not divorce their husbands until after giving birth, and that it would be in the interest of the future child that he or she not be born out of wedlock.

In supporting Hughes’ appeal of Judge Bastine’s decision, the ACLU and the Northwest Women’s Law Center argue that the court has no discretion to deny a properly made petition for dissolution of marriage because Washington is a no-fault divorce state. The groups also charge that the judge’s action reflected an archaic view of illegitimacy. By law, a child born to parents who are not married to each other has the same rights as a child whose parents are married. Further, the state’s Parentage Act provides that any questions about parentage can be resolved by a paternity test, and the man determined to be the father will have financial responsibility regardless of marital status.

“In addition to the domestic violence issues, the court of appeals must consider and acknowledge that all people in Washington have the right to be divorced,” said Lisa Stone, Executive Director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center. “Preventing Ms. Hughes or any woman from divorcing because she is pregnant not only endangers her, it also discriminates against her in violation of our Constitution.”

Hughes is the mother of two children and her third baby is due later this month.

The friend-of-the-court brief was written by ACLU of Washington board member Trilby Robinson-Dorn, Northwest Women’s Law Center cooperating attorney Kristin Boraas, and Law Center staff attorney Nancy Sapiro. Several organizations advocating for women’s rights have joined the brief, including the Refugee and Immigrant Forum; the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence; NARAL Pro-Choice Washington; the National Coalition against Domestic Violence; Washington NOW; the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs; Stop Family Violence; and the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

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