Rape

In 7 US states, rape victims can be legally forced to share custody of their children with their rapist fathers

April 10, 2017: Members of the Maryland House of Delegates meet in the house chamber on the final day of the Maryland legislative session in Annapolis, Md.

April 10, 2017: Members of the Maryland House of Delegates meet in the house chamber on the final day of the Maryland legislative session in Annapolis, Md.  (AP)

Shauna Prewitt was a 21-year-old college senior in 2004 when she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her decision to keep her child -- a baby girl -- brought with it an unexpected twist: her rapist sought custody of their daughter when she was born.

Prewitt is not alone.

Women in seven U.S. states can be legally forced to share custody of their children with their rapist fathers -- including in Maryland, where an all-male panel failed April 10 to pass legislation that would have allowed victims who have children from rape to block rapists' parental rights.

"They have the same rights as any other biological father," said Lisae Jordan, an attorney and executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"It's outrageous," Jordan said of the bill's failure to pass, noting it was "tone-deaf" to have six male legislators handling last-minute negotiations on the bill.

The Rape Survivor Family Protection Act, which received bipartisan support, passed in both the Maryland House and the state's Senate but a panel of six male legislators had to create a final version of the legislation because the drafts approved by each house had considerable differences. A final bill failed to pass April 10 because time ran out on the last day of the Maryland General Assembly's annual three-month session.

The Assembly isn’t set to reconvene until Jan. 10, 2018, but state legislators told Fox News an emergency session is being considered. 

Maryland delegate Kathleen Dumais had introduced the legislation -- her ninth time trying to pass a bill that changes the law surrounding custody rights for rape victims.

"After nine years, Maryland can do better," Maryland State Sen. Cheryl Kagan told Fox News.

Under current Maryland law, if a rape victim decides to put her child up for adoption, she can be faced with another hurdle: permission from her rapist.

"It's insane to think that if a woman who became pregnant as a result of rape and wanted to continue her pregnancy and give her baby up for adoption would somehow need her rapist’s permission," said Kagan, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

"That's nuts," she said. "This issue is one that resonates so strongly with average folks who just don’t think it makes sense."

The realities of such laws, according to Jordan and others, make rape victims who conceive more likely to consider abortion. Change to these laws is supported by people on both sides of the abortion debate. The Rape Survivor Family Protection Act, for instance, garnered support from both the Maryland Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

Delegate David Moon, a Democrat, told Fox News on Friday that the bill failed because the session timed out -- not for lack of support.

Moon and two others on the panel -- State Sen. William Smith Jr., a Democrat, and Delegate Brett Wilson, a Republican -- were original co-sponsors of the legislation.

"We were desperately trying to pass the bill in the closing minutes of the session but the timing obstacles put in front of us proved to be insurmountable," Moon said, while acknowledging, "the optics were really horrible for having an all-male panel for rape and custody issues."

But Maryland State Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican on the panel, said he thinks the bill "got tanked on purpose."

"Democratic leadership scheduled the conference to meet at 11 p.m., an hour before the session was to end," Hough told Fox News. "This bill has been floating around for almost 10 years."

Hough, who has always supported the bill, noted a provision within it he said presents legal hurdles. The legislation calls for the termination of parental rights for "alleged rapists," he said. 

"If it just dealt with convicted rapists, it would be cut-and-dried," Hough said. "Because it's about alleged rapists, there’s a lot of legal challenges."

The four other members of the panel were not immediately available for comment Friday. 

Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago lawyer, penned an open letter in 2012 to former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., in response to remarks he made about rape and pregnancy. Akin, a Senate candidate at the time, said pregnancy rarely occurs as a result of what he called "legitimate rape" -- a comment roundly criticized by both Republicans and Democrats as well as medical experts and women's rights groups.

Prewitt explained the circumstances of her rape in an impassioned letter that received national attention. 

"My name is Shauna Prewitt. You do not know me, but you should," she wrote. "I am one of the approximately 25,000 women who every year become pregnant as a result of rape, and I would like to help you better 'empathize' with my story."

There are seven states without laws preventing rapists from gaining custody of children conceived without consent. In addition to Maryland, such states include Alabama, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming and New Mexico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

"It's not that there is an act of law saying rapists have parental rights," Jordan explained. "It's just that this issue hasn't been addressed in their laws," therefore making it possible for rapists to pursue shared custody.

In Maryland, however, progress has recently been made on a number of other state rape laws.

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law a package of bills that make it easier to prosecute rape cases and protect victims -- including one that's become known as the "no means no" bill. The bill exempts rape victims from having to provide evidence of "physical resistance" to prove they have been raped.

"As a result of this law, sexual assault survivors will no longer be in the position of choosing between physically resisting and getting hurt, or not resisting and losing access to justice," Dumais said.

Maryland also expanded the definition of sexual abuse to include sex trafficking and now requires that rape kits be kept for at least 20 years.

"Maryland is a fairly progressive state and there’s a lot that we do right to move things forward but sometimes those in leadership have a blind spot and don’t move forward in the way that we should," Kagan said.

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @Cristina Corbin