Behind the banner: 10 women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets, members of the Handmaids' Resistance of Phoenix, a grassroots group that advocates for reproductive rights in Arizona. Their name and attire is a nod to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where women are forced to bear children for men.
The protest on Monday afternoon came days after Phoenix New Times reported that Republican State Senator Eddie Farnsworth had allegedly demanded a female senator add an amendment to her own bill that would exclude married rape victims from being able to terminate parental rights for a child conceived by rape. The news was later spread nationally by Newsweek and Rawstory.
In a delayed response, Farnsworth now says those accusations were lies.
Senator Victoria Steele, a Democrat from Tucson, introduced a bill in January to allow parents of children conceived by rape to terminate the parental rights of the rapist without a conviction. But last Thursday, she announced on Twitter that she pulled the bill because Farnsworth demanded that she add an amendment to the bill that would "exempt married victims who are raped by their spouses."
Handmaids are here in the Senate gallery and held up a sign that reads “Eddie Farnsworth protects rapists.” The sign was immediately taken down. pic.twitter.com/mmSiXaX3SM— Dillon Rosenblatt (@DillonReedRose) February 24, 2020
The Handmaids held up the banner for all of about five seconds on Monday before Senate security walked over and pulled the banner out of their hands. The Handmaids then stood silently instead, pointing at Farnsworth before walking out. They were escorted out of the gallery.
"Our action ... was a protest against Farnsworth’s latest attempt to violate the bodily autonomy of Arizonans," the Handmaids' Resistance of Phoenix said in a statement shared with New Times. "It is clear to us that Farnsworth, following in the footsteps of his political party and the President he supports, does not take rape seriously and at least tolerates it if not outright condones it in at least some circumstances."
It isn't the Handmaids' first appearance at the Legislature. In October 2018, members of the Handmaids' Resistance protested U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination outside Senator Jeff Flake's office.
"We engaged in [Monday's] action in the hopes that Farnsworth’s colleagues in the State Senate would no longer silently tolerate Farnsworth’s reprehensible views," the Handmaids said. "We undertook the action knowing it was technically a violation of the Legislature’s rules on decorum but we believe that this false and unequally applied allegiance to decorum is what allows people like Farnsworth to not be challenged by their colleagues even when their views (and actions, in the cases of David Stringer and Don Shooter) are abhorrent and immoral."
Senate Bill 1355 was supposed to be heard last 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.
"'I don't think someone who's been married, and has children, should be able to cry rape,'" Steele claimed Farnsworth told her. "'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.'"
Ultimately, Steele said she decided not to go through with the amendment.
"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."
Farnsworth never responded to multiple requests from New Times seeking more information about Steele's claims, nor did he respond when asked about Monday's demonstration.
statement Farnsworth later shared with some media outlets, (but not with New Times), Farnsworth claimed Steele's comments to New Times were "a series of lies." He called Steele's portrayal of the reason her bill was held "inaccurate" and said he had "concerns with the scope of the bill" and "had several conversations with Steele reflecting those concerns."
"My concerns focused on the severance of parental rights, when there are multiple children in the family. Severing the rights of one child would not address the family as a whole," Farnsworth said. "I believe a better way to address the issue of sexual assault when there are other children in the family is through the family courts."
Farnsworth claims he not only never demanded Steele add an amendment to the bill, he never asked for one. He also said Steele lied when she said he threatened not to hear her bill if she didn't add the amendment, and said he never said "I don't think someone who's been married ... should be able to cry rape," which Steele claimed he had.
It's not the first time Farnsworth has been accused of dismissing spousal rape as rape. As the Arizona Mirror reported last week, in the early 2000s, Farnsworth fought against a measure to strengthen Arizona's spousal rape laws.
In a 2005 Phoenix Magazine article, Bill Hart, executive director of the Arizona Sexual Assault Network, recounted his conversation with Farnsworth about the bill: "As he remembers it, Farnsworth told him, 'Some would argue there are conjugal rights that exist within a marriage.' Hart says he responded by saying, 'Some would argue that that idea comes from the days when women were seen as chattel.'"