Arizona State Senator Victoria Steele, a Democrat from Tucson, introduced a bill last month to allow parents of children conceived by rape to terminate the parental rights of the rapist without a conviction.
But on Thursday, she announced on Twitter that she pulled the bill because Republican Senator Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert demanded that she add an amendment to the bill that would "exempt married victims who are raped by their spouses."
"Today I made an extremely difficult decision: I pulled my bill SB 1355 that would allow a parent of a child conceived because of rape to terminate the parental rights of their rapist," Steele said. "I was forced to pull my bill because the committee chairman held my bill hostage with the demand that I allow an amendment to exempt married victims who are raped by their spouses."
Senate Bill 1355 was supposed to be heard Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Farnsworth chairs. While Arizona law does currently allow rape victims whose rape resulted in a pregnancy to sever the rights of a rapist whose child they kept, it only permits the legal severance when the rape results in a conviction, which rapes almost never do.
As a result, rape victims in Arizona with a child conceived from the rape can be forced by law to allow the rapists to share custody of their children and have visits with their children.
Steele's bill would have permitted victims to present their case to terminate the rights of the rapist to civil court, which would require "clear and convincing evidence" the child was conceived by sexual assault before making the decision to terminate a parent's rights.
"It would have allowed them to show testimonies of witnesses, any hospital records, counseling records, anything like that," Steele told Phoenix New Times.
But, Steele said, that all fell apart after Farnsworth demanded she add an amendment to the bill exempting married victims who are raped by their spouses.
Steele said she had four bills assigned to Farnsworth's committee. One she never believed would be heard. But she says she thought she had a good shot of getting a hearing for least one of the three other bills, which included SB 1355.
"It's a really important bill," Steele said. "I had this woman who had been raped — she was going to testify at today's committee. She had been raped, and she decided when she became pregnant as a result she was going to keep the baby. But her rapist came back and sued her for custody."
In Arizona, Steele said, "The father has rights, even if that father is a rapist. And the current law in Arizona is if someone has been convicted of rape they can have their parental rights repealed or terminated."
Less than 1 percent of rapes result in a conviction, according to the nonprofit Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). And many rape victims do not report rape to the police in the first place out of fear that they will not be taken seriously, that nothing will happen, or they will have their privacy exposed.
"When I talked to Eddie about the bill, he said he actually liked it," Steele said. As they got closer to a hearing, she thought he may still run one of her three remaining bills. Steele said she worked with Farnsworth and had been trying to reach a compromise on her bills when, "He said, 'There's one thing, and you're not gonna like it.'"
"'I don't think someone who's been married, and has children, should be able to cry rape,'" Steele claims Farnsworth said. "'I would want an amendment... Not only do I want an amendment, I'm not gonna run it, you are, because I'll just get attacked. You have to amend your own bill to take married people out.'"
Farnsworth did not reply to an email sent to his legislative email address on Thursday, nor did he reply to a voicemail left on his office phone. A call to his cell phone went straight to voicemail, but no inbox was set up to leave a message. Farnsworth did not respond to a text message sent to his cell phone. Mike Philipsen, director of communications for the State Senate, said that he would text Farnsworth and pass a message on immediately, but Farnsworth still had not contacted New Times as of Friday morning.
Even after Farnsworth's request, which Steele said was made in person during a conversation between the two of them on the Senate floor a few weeks ago, Steele considered adding the amendment.
"I thought if I could get part of it now, at least I could help some people now, and do more next year, when Eddie is gone," Steele said. "Like this woman — she has to share custody with this rapist."
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But she consulted with stakeholders and colleagues, who told her it was a bad idea to add such an amendment to the bill. "'He won't put this amendment on it himself because he knows people will be livid,'" Steele recounts activists telling her. "'He wants you to take the fall.'"
Ultimately, Steele said she decided around 9 p.m. on Wednesday not to go through with the amendment.
"I really, really wanted to believe that Eddie was working with me," Steele said. "And telling this victim who was going to testify this morning that I wasn't going to do this was heart-wrenching. Because she said I have waited for years to tell this story."
"It doesn't matter if your rapist is someone you're married to, work with, or a stranger," Steele said. "It's cruel. It's unconscionable."