Campaigns to end child marriage in the United States are grossly exaggerating the magnitude of the problem, are misleading the public regarding the circumstances of the typical child marriage, and misleadingly imply that girls who get married before turning age eighteen are not acting in their own best interests or in a way contrary to how they would act if they had free will.
In the U.S., child marriage is not the legitimate and serious problem that it is in many poor countries in Africa and Asia. In large part, this is because the institution of marriage in the U.S. gives husbands and parents far less coercive power than in many other countries. The people leading those campaigns may be sincere and misinformed, but as far as the U.S. is concerned they are wrong.
Teen pregnancies have become dramatically less common in the last twenty-five years. Teens who marry before turning eighteen are overwhelmingly either pregnant or are already mothers and are marrying the father of at least one of their children. Teen marriage is become more rare as teen pregnancies become much less common. Marriages of girls aged 13 to 15 which require judicial consent in New Jersey are particularly rare in New Jersey (even relative to the number of teens that age who have children). There is no evidence whatsoever that any significant number of girls in the U.S. are being forced into child marriages that are not in their best interests with partners that they have not chosen themselves. If there is a child marriage problem in the U.S., it is pregnant teens and teen mothers in New Jersey are not getting married as often as their own best interests would suggest, rather than that they are getting married too often.
The main problem in the U.S. is that unmarried late adolescent are getting pregnant too often, not that they are getting married too often or that they are being pressured by their parents to have sexual relationships with older men. But, incredible progress has been made in reducing the number of teen pregnancies in the U.S. in the last twenty-five years (particular in the more recent years), resulting in far fewer teen mothers and far few abortions by pregnant teens. This is mostly due to greater contraception use by teens.
There were roughly 90,000 girls in New Jersey who were aged 13-15 years old and 60,000 girls who were 16 or 17 years old, when the last census was taken in the year 2010. According to an opinion piece in the New York Times (corrected from the original erroneous version of the article):
3,481 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 163 were between ages 13 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages. . . . 91 percent of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges, not a marriage license.
This is about 193 children including 9 between ages 13 and 15, in an average year.
Overwhelmingly, people who marry before age 18 are girls rather than boys, and this is even more strongly the case when people marry between ages 13 and 15. So, the annual marriage rate for girls between 13 and 15 in New Jersey in the relevant time period is approximately 1 in 10,000 (i.e. 0.01%). In truth, there are probably significantly more 15 year olds than 14 years olds, and significantly more 14 year olds than 13 year olds in that sample.
The odds that a New Jersey girl will marry any time in her life before age 16 is about 0.03%.
The annual marriage rate for girls aged 16 and 17 in New Jersey in the relevant time period is about 1 in 326 (i.e. 0.3%).
The odds that a New Jersey girl will marry before turning 18 in New Jersey is about 0.63% (i.e. about 1 in 159). The other 99.37% of New Jersey girls will not marry before age 18, although many who do not marry will have children.
There were about 1,030 children born to mothers aged 15 to 17 in New Jersey in 2014 (a rate of 5.8 per 1,000 girls aged 15-17 down 15% from last year and down 78% from a peak in 1991), and about 37 children born to mothers under age 15 in New Jersey in 2014. Thus, there were 1,067 children born to mothers under age 18 in New Jersey in 2014 and roughly 193 marriages of girls under the age of eighteen.
Unsurprisingly, black and Hispanic girls are roughly six times as likely to be mothers under age eighteen as white girls in New Jersey.
There are about 5.5 teen births by mothers under the age of 18 in New Jersey for every marriage by a girl under the age of 18 in New Jersey (8% of the births by teens under the age of eighteen are second or later births). About 94% of births to mothers aged 15 to 19 in New Jersey are non-marital. So, there were fewer than 64 births each year in New Jersey to married mothers under the age of eighteen in 2014. Indeed, the number is probably significantly less because if 15-17 year old mothers were equally likely to be married as 18-19 year old mothers in New Jersey, the number of married teen 15-17 year old mothers would be 18 in 2014, and in fact, it is almost surely the case that 18-19 year old mothers in New Jersey are at least somewhat more likely to be married than 15-17 year old mothers in New Jersey.
The rate at which teens under the age of eighteen become pregnant in New Jersey is roughly 8 times the number of births to teens under the age of eighteen in New Jersey. Some of that is the statistical quirk the arises because more than three-quarters of seventeen year olds who get pregnant ultimately give birth when they are eighteen. But, probably something like a third of those pregnancies of girls under eighteen years of age end in miscarriage or stillbirth, and roughly half of those pregnancies are terminated with abortions.
The facts suggest a couple of things.
First, the nearly 80% decline in births to mothers under eighteen since 1991 in New Jersey has probably been accompanied by a similarly great decline in the number of marriages by women under the age of eighteen in New Jersey since then. So, there were probably far fewer than 193 teens under the age of eighteen and were probably fewer than 9 teens under the age of sixteen married in 2014 in New Jersey.
Second, it suggests that most teenaged girls under eighteen who marry with judicial or parental consent in New Jersey, rather than being pregnant, are already mother's of the husband's children by the time that they marry.
No doubt some girls under the age of eighteen in New Jersey who marry are not pregnant or mothers when they marry, but I suspect that this is a small minority of the total and consists almost entirely of sixteen and seventeen year olds who require parental approval but not judicial approval to marry.
Is This Outrageous?
The author of the opinion piece is outraged by these facts and appalled that a judge would every approve a marriage in these circumstances.
I am not nearly as concerned, even though I am quite sympathetic to the concerns raised by her about child marriage in foreign countries.
Both spouses consent is required in a request to seek judicial approval for a marriage. Because such cases are so rare, judges generally pay close attention to these requests. It would be highly unusual for a judge to grant a request for a girl between the ages of 13 and 15 to marry without hearing live testimony from the prospective wife, the prospective husband, a parent or guardian of the minor, and at least one other witness such as a social worker, a friend of the bride, or a sibling of the bride. Usually, a court would appoint an attorney and/or a guardian ad litem, both of whom would be officers of the court and known to be trustworthy by the judge, to represent the girl in the case.
There is no judicial assembly line out there blindly marrying off unwilling 13 years olds to adult men so that they can get the girl pregnant legally in the first place. I would be surprised if more than 2 or 3 cases in the entire 18 year time period studied involve that set of facts.
Generally, in cases where judicial approval is sought for the marriage of a teenaged girl between age 13 and 15, the girl is already pregnant, does not want an abortion, does not want to put her child up for adoption, and seeks marriage to the father who is an adult capable of providing for her. Indeed, it seems likely that in most of these cases, the wife has already had a child with the husband.
While the statute may not require that she be pregnant or a mother already, I have never heard a single case in a U.S. state in modern times authorizing the marriage of a boy between the ages of 13 and 15 to an adult woman, or authorizing the marriage of a girl between the ages of 13 and 15 who is not pregnant or already a mother. I would be quite surprised to see a judge authorize the marriage of someone aged 13 and 15 who was not pregnant or already a mother in the State of New Jersey in the time frame in question, although it isn't, strictly speaking, impossible that this could have happened some of the time.
Often there are pressures on the girl from the father, her family, her friends, her faith, and society at large for her to have or to not have an abortion. Myriad legal struggles have gone into determining the circumstances under which this decision is made by a teenaged girl. More often than not, this issue was already decided by the time a case seeking permission to marry reaches a judge, the pregnancy is quite advanced, and only a very late term abortion would be possible if it is possible and legal at all. So, once a judge faces a young teenaged girl's marriage request, the abortion question is over and done with and the girl has made a decision, albeit not final and binding, not to put the child up for adoption.
Generally, the girl's parents are not pleased by the fact that she got pregnant as a young teenager and did not encourage her to get into that situation, and often the father's family isn't pleased either.
Generally, the choices available to the girl and the authorities once she has rejected having an abortion or having the child and putting it up for adoption, who often already has and is raising a child, are for her to: (1) have a child and be a single mother while prosecuting the father for statutory rape (which would usually involve relatively a short prison sentence) with or without a parallel civil action to terminate his parental rights which might or might not succeed, (2) have a child and coparent that child with the father outside of marriage, or (3) have a child and marry the father.
Often, a teenaged girl and an adult man who gets her pregnant in a case where a judge is asked to approve their marriage have feelings for each other and are reasonably compatible with each other.
In the usual case, where a judge is asked to approve the marriage of a thirteen to fifteen year old, if the judge says no and the parents of the child support the marriage, the child can marry with parental permission one to three years later without judicial approval in any case if the child, the other spouse and the parents of the child still approve of the marriage at that time.
In the meantime, the judge cannot generally prevent the couple from cohabiting, is generally bound by law to set the terms of their relationship as coparents if either prospective spouse requests this, and has no power to compel a prosecution of an adult spouse of a minor for statutory rape without the assent of the District Attorney in the jurisdiction.
A teenaged girl who is not married to the father of the child generally has significantly fewer rights vis-a-vis the father of the child than a child who is married to the father of the child.
For example, a married girl would generally be entitled not just to chid support, but also to alimony and an equitable share of marital property owned solely in the name of the father if their relationship ended. She would also have rights to pursue a wrongful death claim and to claim Social Security and insurance benefits from him if he died in her own name. The parental responsibilities and child support obligations of the teenaged girl and the father in the event that they break up would ordinarily be identical.
So, it would rarely be the case that a pregnant teenaged girl who is having a baby with an adult man is going to be better off as a single mother who cohabits or coparents with him, than as his wife.
Of course, if they do not get along, or if she feels that he is economically worthless, she doesn't have to seek to be married.
Another factor that makes a child marriage far less coercive in the United States than it might be in some other countries. "No fault" divorce is widely available in the United States, without parental permission as the marriage emancipates her, so the wife can legally, unilaterally leave the marriage at any time, while and enjoy any and all marital rights that she may have as a result of the marriage.
Of all the cases that come before judges in the United States, a request of a pregnant thirteen to fifteen year old girl to marry the usually adult father of her child is rarely a difficult one and approving the request is rarely a bad decision.
Sixteen and Seventeen Year Old Spouses
The case of 16 or 17 year olds (again overwhelmingly girls marrying older men, but not quite as uniformly pregnant at the time) who marry with parental consent, do involve less scrutiny. But, these young women are generally a year or two away from having the right to marry unilaterally.
Indeed, at age 16 or 17, the public is at least assured that a parent consents to the marriage and that the spouses, however grudgingly, have consented enough to say so and sign the marriage certificate.
Eighteen years old may be a widely recognized point to draw the line regarding adulthood, but ultimately it is an arbitrary one that has varied somewhat in time and place over the ages. Often adulthood is as old as twenty-one, and for many practical purposes we treat sixteen year olds as adults.
It has been perfectly normal for much of U.S. history for sixteen or seventeen year old women to marry older men, and it is a developmental fact that a sixteen year old woman, on average, is more mature than a sixteen year old boy and is probably, on average, at least as mature as an eighteen year old boy.
These couples are never subject to statutory rape charges, because the age of consent in New Jersey is sixteen years old.
If they marry, these women retain the privileges of "no fault divorce" (without parental permission as their marriage emancipates them) and will almost alway have more rights that protect them as spouses than as cohabiting girlfriends of their spouse's. Parents may have some legal authority over their sixteen and seventeen year old children, but their practical authority over them should not be overstated. Sixteen year olds can drive, can be legally hired to do most kinds of jobs that they are qualified in any way to do, and can usually rent an apartment if a co-signer can be obtained or if a landlord isn't very particular. As a result, if they do choose to divorce, they are likely to be able to manage as well as most other adults do at that point, and if they married at sixteen or seventeen years of age, they are likely to be quite close to being eighteen years old adults in any case, once they are actually divorced.
It is also worth keeping in mind in all of these "child marriage" cases that marriage grants a husband much less power of his wife in the United States than it does in many other counties. It does not give the husband the legal right to rape his wife. It does not give the husband any immunity of any kind from criminal or civil liability for assault, kidnapping, theft or other crimes or torts. It does not give the husband legal control over property titled in the wife's name (other than an inchoate interest in marital property upon divorce) and does not give him the right to claim her wages. It does not give the husband the right to insist that she cohabit with him or to prevent her from separating from him at any time.
The rights of a husband and wife with regard to their children are the same as the rights of an unmarried pair of parents for whom there is acknowledged paternity.
Simply put, there is little reason to think that the requirement of parental consent to marry when a young woman is sixteen or seventeen years old facilitates a significant number of involuntary weddings. And, even if legal marriage were prohibited in the cases where parents have such power over their late teenaged daughters that they can force them to marry in the United States, it is likely that the young women would have been forced into religious marriages without any of a legal benefits of a civil marriage, in any case.
There are certainly many places in the world in Asia and Africa where girls and young women are forced by their parents into marriages to which they do not meaningfully consent, and those women then go on to have negative experiences as a result, ranging from marital rape and domestic violence to childbearing before the mothers are developmentally ready to have children, to losses of economic and educational opportunities, to loss of autonomy and happiness in life.
This is not the norm in the United States at this time, and it is understandable that someone might b concerned that these undesirable practices could be exported to the United States by immigrant populations or by extremist (by U.S. standards) religious groups.
But, because of the way that the institution of marriage has evolved in recent U.S. history, and because of the nature of the legal safeguards in place in cases of marriages by minors, these relatively rare marriages are not something about which great public concern is appropriate.
If anything, the bar to marriage by minors where it is appropriate is set too high and pregnant teens are more often harmed by a failure to marry than by being given permission from a judge or a parent to marry. The fact that significantly less than 6% of mothers in New Jersey who have children under the age of eighteen are married, when the economic benefit of doing so to the mother are very often positive, suggests that child marriage is too hard to get, rather than too common, in New Jersey.