Why Are Some Republican Lawmakers Hellbent on Preserving Child Marriage?

Holly Thompson Rehder was a sophomore when she dropped out of high school and married her 21-year-old boyfriend. Today, she’s a GOP state senator and the sponsor of a bill that would ban child marriage in Missouri — a bill that she has been surprised to see blocked by her Republican colleagues who argue there is nothing wrong with the practice.

“I know firsthand. I was married at 15. My sister was married at 16. My cousin was married at 16,” Rehder says. “I understand how a teenage girl being married off is harmful to her life, and sometimes that’s hard for others who haven’t seen that, up close and personal, to understand.”

Marriage is currently legal in Missouri at age of 16 with at least one parent’s consent. That’s a relatively recent development: Missouri lawmakers only banned marrying children who were 14 years old or younger in 2018. Fifty lawmakers — 38 Republicans and two Democrats — voted against that bill at the time. Before the 2018 legislation passed, Missouri had one of the laxest child marriage restrictions in the country, which, some argued, made the state a refuge for sex trafficking.

Rehder, along with state Sen. Lauren Arthur (D), introduced a bill that would outlaw marriage for anyone under the age of 18. The bill, which passed the GOP-controlled Senate 31-1 earlier this year, has stalled in House — the Government Efficiency and Downsizing committee, specifically — where half of the committee’s 14 members have opposed it.

Among the bill’s opponents is Rep. Hardy Billington (R), who told the Kansas City Star he believes that ending child marriage in Missouri would encourage abortion. “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,” Billington said. (Missouri bans abortion at any stage, except when the life of the pregnant person is at stake.)

This argument — that child marriage must be preserved to prevent abortion — seems to be gaining currency with Republicans across the country as they consider laws to raise the marriage age.

The United States does not have a federal law setting the age of marriage. The marriage age is set by states, and only 12 of them have banned child marriage. (Those states: Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.)

A 2021 study by the advocacy group Unchained at Last found that 300,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2018 in the United States. According to the group, 60,000 of those marriages involved an age difference that would have otherwise been considered a sex crime.

The vast majority of these minors were 16 or 17 years old, and most were girls wed to adult men who were four years older than they were, on average. There were five documented instances of children as young as 10 married in the U.S. in the period studied.

Several states legislatures have recently considered bills that would raise the marriage age recently — but they have run into opposition from Republican men who often cite abortion as the reason.

On the New Hampshire House floor last week, state Rep. Jess Edwards (R) argued against raising the marriage age from 16 to 18, by asking whether a law preventing people “of ripe, fertile age” from getting married would thus make “abortion a much more desirable alternative” than being pregnant out of wedlock. The bill, which had already passed the state Senate unanimously, narrowly made it through the House, with 192 votes in favor and 174 against. It now awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Last year in West Virginia, a bill that would have raised the minimum age to obtain a marriage license passed the House of Delegates with overwhelming support, was defeated in the Senate Judiciary committee. Among the bill’s opponents was Republican state Sen. Mike Stuart, who shared that his mother married at age 16, and gave birth to him six months later. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. The proposal, which raised the marriage age to 16 with parental consent, was ultimately resurrected and signed into law.

In Wyoming last year, when state lawmakers were considering a bill to raise the minimum marriage age to 16, the Republican Party sent out an email citing talking points from the religious group Capitol Watch for Wyoming Families that asserted: “Since young men and women may be physically capable of begetting and bearing children prior to the age of 16, marriage MUST remain open to them for the sake of those children.” (The bill ultimately passed.)

Missouri’s Rehder, who became pregnant shortly after she was married at 15, doesn’t accept this argument. “I think there is no correlation” between child marriage and abortion, she says. “As a woman who was married at 15, who was pregnant at 15, you’re either pro-life or pro-choice. Your marriage status doesn’t have anything to do with either being pro-life or pro-choice.”

Another thing Rehder won’t accept? The possibility of her legislation dying in committee. While the bill that would raise the marriage age to 18 remains stalled with one week left in the legislative session, Rehder — who is currently running for lieutenant governor — has a plan to see it voted on next week.

“I’m tenacious, and I don’t give up until the last bell rings,” Rehder says. “I’ve got a bill that I’ve been working on [about] sex trafficking and foster children benefits. I’ve got it moving in the House, and I’m working to try to get this language for the marriage age added [as an amendment] to it.”

Rehder expects that bill, which has already passed out of committee, to come to the House floor on Monday, where she believes it might succeed. Proposing it as an amendment on the floor, she says, “will give us a larger pool of votes to pull from, and more women voting on it,” she says. “My hope is that we can still make this happen.”

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