"Is he gonna marry her, or what?"

Many years ago, that question from the father of a 16-year-old girl was put to a local community leader, whose 18-year-old son had gotten the girl pregnant. That response was typical of the day, and in this part of the country. There might not have literally been a weapon pointed at the back of the father of the groom in what was called a "shotgun wedding," but nevertheless, the father of the bride fully expected the "baby daddy" to "do the right thing."

But views of pro-life advocates notwithstanding, the pregnancy of an underaged girl should be nothing to celebrate, especially if the baby's father is legally an adult. The notion that marriage should always be the result is draconian, often harmful, and certainly punitive. There are other alternatives to forcing a young girl into a life for which she is not emotionally ready — even if the girl claims to want it.

That's why the failure of House Bill 3873 last week is disappointing, if not disgusting. Had it passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and been further reconciled, it would have prohibited minors under 16 from tying the knot, unless they first became "emancipated." That would have made sense, because as it now stands, permission to marry must be given by a parent, legal guardian or court ruling.

Legislators who opposed Rep. Jason Dunnington's bill said it removed parental input from the equation. In truth, many teens are pushed into marriages they don't want or need, usually because the girl is pregnant and her parents want to avoid the shame that still accompanies unwed mothers. Sometimes the girls even talk their parents into allowing the marriage, because at that age, they're convinced everything will be all hearts and roses. That's rarely the case.

But there are other nefarious reasons for forced unions of young people, and they usually involve financial benefit for the parents, or some outdated religious concept that victimizes the young — and usually silent but frightened — couple. And those have no place in modern society.

What sort of individual would think it's OK to essentially force a child into marriage? Whatever the case, he or she has no business in public office. The emancipation process theoretically demonstrates the teen is mature enough to be on his or her own — which would also suggest a potential readiness for matrimony. That seems far better than guaranteeing the decision be left to a parent who has his own interests, rather than that of the child, at heart.

Americans tend to look askance at child marriages when they occur in third world countries. We bad-mouth people in other cultures or religious traditions when they choose partners for their children, based on economic advantage or other factors. Yet when it comes to the mess in our own back yard that includes basically the selling of a child into matrimony, we look the other way.

Elected officials owe it to their constituents to explain why they support child marriage — or at least, why their rejection of this bill gives that appearance. It's time some of these backward-thinking people at the statehouse step into the light of the 21st century and take the long view where the welfare of their children are concerned.

— Tahlequah Daily Press

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