Family Values

Thursday, January 20th, 2005

Say what, Your Honor?

Conceding that the law is imperfect and judges for the most part do the best they can within strict parameters, and conceding also that the affairs of Shawnna Hughes — both legal and marital — are complex and messy, and that she may not be the ideal poster girl for the urgency of protecting all that is sacred, still, yikes. Something fundamental feels violated in the recent ruling that overturned her divorce.

“This is a woman in domestic violence asking to get out of the relationship,” her attorney said afterwards, according to Associated Press. “We’re telling abusers that if you can get her pregnant you can keep her married to you.”

Legal technicalities aside, what we’re left with in the wake of the verdict by Judge Paul Bastine is that a spouse-batterer’s paternity rights carry more legal weight than a pregnant woman’s peace of mind; and that the state — in this case, the state of Washington, though judges in other states could potentially have made the same call — has “interests” to protect that supercede the guarantee of violence-free households.

Those interests, of course, are financial. Among the complexities in Hughes’ life, beyond her pregnancy and her marriage to Carlos Hughes, who did jail time in 2003 for beating her and is currently in jail in Montana awaiting trial on federal drug charges, is the fact that she’s on public assistance.

So when state aid workers learned that Shawnna was pregnant, they contested the divorce she had just obtained from Hughes on the grounds that it might leave the state unable to identify a father it could pursue to recoup child support, which doesn’t make sense, but there you go. It’s no fun being on public aid. It gives a lot of people leave to interfere with your life.

In fact, Shawnna Hughes, who is seven months pregnant, wants to marry the man who, she says, actually is the baby’s father, who also happens to be in jail right now on drug charges. Those nuptials will have to wait. Bastine overturned her divorce on the grounds that “you cannot dissolve a marriage when one of the parties is pregnant” — not even, apparently, if the wife has a restraining order against a husband who isn’t the father anyway.

Or maybe it’s not so clear-cut and maybe Bastine misinterpreted the law. Enough people are saying so — women’s rights groups, the ACLU — to suggest, at least, that the law’s intent is ambiguous, and that the judge could have, if he had so chosen, allowed the state’s moral authority to fall on the side of the battered spouse, not on the side of the “father or non-father” sitting in a jail cell two states over.

However the finer points of the legal esoterica sort out in this matter, my sense is that the judge was swayed in his decision by the wrong subjective forces, which prompted him, as Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur pointed out, to moralize from the bench against the behavior of the wife and remain silent about the husband.

“It’s not the child’s fault that Mom got pregnant,” he said, according to Brodeur, when he issued the ruling. “The answer is, you don’t go around doing that when you’re not divorced.”

Well, right, your honor. And neither do you go around pounding on your wife, as Carlos Hughes allegedly did, when she was pregnant with the first of the two children they had together, or exert so little self-control you bring “significant physical harm” to her over the years — and if you do, maybe, in a sane world, you use up all legal sympathy and the state will not regard your continued marriage to her to be, under any circumstances, in its interest.

So the heart tightens at this decision, which exudes such indifference to a virulent social problem.

The family is a violent institution, and women and children are the ones who suffer. Forty-two percent of murdered women die at the hands of their intimate partners, according to the FBI. Pregnancy adds to the risk; studies indicate as many as 26 percent of pregnant women may be abused. The leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder, according to a 2001 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Which side is the law on? If it’s nothing more than an arbiter in this “battle of the sexes,” God help the women and children.