No-Fault Divorce Laws Under Attack By Right

by Barbara Burgos DiTullio
Pennsylvania NOW President

An emerging boilerplate issue in state legislatures is a right-wing attempt to repeal or revise no-fault divorce laws. Pennsylvania was one of the last states to pass no-fault divorce, and it is one of the first to re-consider it.

The right wing's rhetoric suggests we wouldn't have so many single-parent families if we changed divorce laws, thus keeping families together. This theme of returning to "traditional family values" is not a new mantra. We recognize this as religious, political extremist code for removing legal alternatives for women in bad or abusive marriages. Their goal is to erect barriers that force women to remain attached to men for financial security, while claiming it is necessary for the health and well-being of the children.

Basics of No-Fault Divorce

When Pennsylvania passed its no-fault divorce law in 1980, Pennsylvania NOW was not wholly in favor of the move without some guarantee of economic protection for women and children. It is well-documented that after divorce women's income generally goes down, while men's overall income increases.

No-fault divorce laws allow couples to split on the basis of irreconcilable differences without going to trial and without the requirement of establishing fault. Many advocates say it is a fairer way of ending dysfunctional marriages than the fault-based system, which often involves lengthy, expensive legal battles.

In August 1996, the Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania House held hearings and became one of the first states to consider amending or possibly repealing its no-fault divorce laws. As Pennsylvania NOW president, I presented testimony against any changes.

This new campaign to revisit no-fault divorce appears to be coming from two groups. One group is comprised of women who have been mistreated by the courts, and they believe reestablishing a fault-based system will increase their bargaining power during divorce. The other group is headed by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, affiliated with the right-wing Christian group, Focus on the Family.

In each of the stories presented last August by the women, the problem was not the no-fault law, but rather that court orders were not enforced, leaving the women in financial ruin. It is difficult to convince women that we need to reform the judiciary and not just change the laws.

David Blankenhorn, president of the right-wing Institute for American Values based in New York, also testified in favor of repealing the no-fault laws in Pennsylvania, but for a much different reason than the women. In a presentation on behalf of the Pennsylvania Family Institute he struck two themes: mandatory counseling and lengthening the tie before a divorce is granted save more marriages, and children suffer greatly as a result of divorce.

Under current Pennsylvania law, if both parties agree to a divorce, it can be granted within 90 days. However, if only one person files for divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences, it takes two years before a divorce is granted. If we extend the waiting period for divorce, as suggested by Blankenhorn, this heavily benefits the person with more financial resources, who in most cases is the man.

The other issue Blankenhorn raised focused solely on the effects of divorce on children. Absent from the studies presented was research on children from intact but dysfunctional families and longterm effects on children whose parents delayed ending bad marriages. Frank Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has co-authored a book surveying divorce studies, says most researchers agree "divorce is consequential," but that much of the impact on children "is due to conditions that precede the divorce and have little to do with the actual breakup of the family."

NOW leaders across the country need to make themselves available for public hearings and to provide testimony to refute the falsehoods surrounding no-fault divorce laws. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, other states planning to review no-fault divorce laws include Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Arizona, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

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