Child brides are still a thing in the United States

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

NBC News published a report this week on a subject that we’ve tackled here in the past, though generally without any comprehensive, satisfactory solution emerging. The topic is child marriage in America and the complicated legal and moral questions surrounding it. They feature the story of a woman identified as Chloe who is now working as an activist to end the practice of allowing children to enter into marriages.

Chloe comes to the subject from a position of direct experience. She was impregnated at the age of 15 by her “boyfriend” who was 22 (!) at the time. He convinced her that getting married was the only way he could avoid going to jail and said that if he did wind up behind bars, “it’s going to be all your fault.” She somehow convinced her mother to sign off on the idea and they were wed. The marriage predictably fell apart and she was left in a tenuous position as a very young, single mother. Now she wants to spare other teenagers from going through the same thing.

Chloe’s story is not as uncommon as it might seem.

From 2000 to 2018, nearly 300,000 minors under the age of 18 were legally married in the U.S., according to a recent estimate by the nonprofit Unchained at Last, which obtained marriage certificates from 32 states and partial data from 12 others.

Roughly 86 percent of the children were girls and nearly 60,000 of the marriages involved an age difference such that the younger spouse could have been considered a victim of a sex crime.

The article also looks at the work of Unchained at Last, a group that assists minors in getting out of bad marriages. The number of marriages involving minors has plummeted in recent years, falling from nearly 80,000 in 2000 to fewer than 2,500 in 2018. But is this something that needs to be wiped out entirely?

I’ve been on the fence on this subject for a long time because it doesn’t seem like a situation where a one-size-fits-all solution is the best idea. Some child marriages just seem like a patently bad idea, and Chloe’s case is probably a prime example. First of all, if you’re a 22-year-old man who is having sex with a 15-year-old child, you don’t have a “girlfriend.” You have a victim because you are a child molester. He managed to convince a child to go along with the plan to keep him out of jail, but her mother needs to have her head examined. As the report notes, this is a repeating pattern in child marriages. The minor is the girl in the vast majority of cases and the “husband” is old enough to face statutory rape charges in a significant number of them.

But that doesn’t apply to all of these marriages. It’s legal for children under 18 to get married in at least 44 states, though nearly all of them require either a parent or a judge to sign off on the deal first. Most of these laws have “Romeo and Juliet” provisions that allow young, age-appropriate couples to avoid having the boyfriend go to jail if, for example, she is still seventeen when he turns eighteen.

The biggest driver of teens rushing toward matrimony is, of course, an unplanned pregnancy. And when the couple is within a year or two of being the same age in those cases, I believe we’re being hasty in trying to flatly ban all such marriages. Certainly, it’s far from the ideal way to start your life together and it would be better if both prospective parents were older and presumably both more mature and more financially prepared to deal with the challenges of establishing a home and starting a family. But at least you’d be giving them a chance, right?

There are those who don’t even see that scenario as being much of a problem. In generations past, couples married at far younger ages. My paternal grandparents married at 17 and 15 respectively and they were still together when they both passed away in short order in their 90s. Of course, in the 21st century, sensibilities (and marriages) have changed a fair bit, and such unions aren’t seen as being typical.

The major complaint being raised by both Chloe and groups like Unchained at Last is that minors who are allowed to marry lack the legal authority to take other legal action (such as dissolving the marriage) without obtaining the consent of a parent or guardian. I wasn’t aware of that and I suppose it’s a valid problem to address. But is a complete ban on all marriages for those under 18 the only solution? It seems like they might be going after a mouse with a shotgun when taking such an approach.

Marriage laws vary from state to state and most of them could probably use a fresh look at some point. But to handle these admittedly touchy situations, in the end, it just seems like children who are steering toward such an outcome would generally benefit a lot more from increased involvement by their families rather than the courts.