A growing number of states are considering bans or additional restrictions on child marriages, including in Pennsylvania, where a bill to outlaw child marriages passed the state’s House of Representatives earlier this month.
“Children under the age of 18 cannot vote, serve in the military and buy alcohol or tobacco products, among other things,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Jesse Topper (R), one of the lead co-sponsors of the legislation, HB 360, stated upon its passage on June 5.
“Marriage is a life-altering decision and those who enter into it must be of a certain maturity that comes with age.”
The legislation is expected to pass the Senate and to be signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf (D), NBC News reported.
Once the bill is enacted into law, Pennsylvania would become the third state, joining New Jersey and Delaware, to outlaw marriage licenses for any applicants under the age of 18; other states set age limits below 18 or allow for exceptions such as court approval.
There are currently 13 states without any age restrictions on marriage, though Maine’s state legislature recently passed a law restricting marriage licenses to applicants aged 16 or older and is due to come into force on Monday.
State Reps. Perry Warren (D) and Topper are the Pennsylvania bill’s lead co-sponsors.
Topper stated in a press release that child marriages—mostly between adult males and female minors—legalized relationships that would otherwise be considered cases of statutory rape. The bill would amend the state’s current law, which allows for marriage licenses for children younger than age 16 to be granted through court approval, and for children ages 16 to 18 with parental consent.
Warren said upon passage of the legislation that “this bill is about child protection,” and that “studies have shown that the child is often not in control of a decision to marry before 18, and a child under 18 does not have the legal rights of an adult.”
The advocacy group Unchained at Last, which works to end forced marriages and child marriages in the U.S. and which supported the Pennsylvania legislation, says that around 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between the years 2000 and 2010.
That estimate was drawn from data gathered in 38 states which revealed more than 167,000 child marriages in the time frame, with estimated numbers from the remaining 12 states and Washington, D.C. “based on the strong correlation Unchained identified between population and child marriage.”
Child spouses have a significantly high risk of abuse, due to their vulnerability, along with a higher risk of divorce, the group says.
According to a 2017 PBS FRONTLINE report, there were at least 207,459 reported child marriages in the U.S. with children as young as 12 being granted marriage licenses in several states.
The number of child marriages did fall significantly over the time period between 2000 and 2010, both PBS and Unchained at Last noted.