SALT LAKE CITY — Heidi Clark became pregnant at age 16 and reluctantly married the child's father in 1995, six weeks after her 17th birthday.
Clark, of Orem, ended the union six years later after suffering physical and sexual abuse. She said she "lost everything" and felt "emotionally damaged."
"There can be no good reason for a child to marry. None at all," Clark told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. "It traps our daughters and sons in an unhappy and unsafe environment."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, wants to raise the minimum age for legal marriage in Utah from 15 to 18. Children as young as 15 can marry in the state with parental consent and court approval.
The committee unanimously endorsed legislation that would ban 15-year-olds from getting married but not raise the minimum age to 18 as Romero originally proposed.
"I'm not giving up on raising the minimum age to 18, but this is a first step," she said after the hearing. "With this step and this going to the (House) floor, we're protecting 15-year-olds."
Under Romero's substitute HB234, 16- and 17-year-olds could marry with permission of a juvenile court judge. She also intends to amend the bill on the House floor to ban marriage for 16- and 17-years olds when the gap between the couple exceeds seven years.
"My concern is there are a lot of situations where a child — we're talking about children here — might be forced into a situation due to pregnancy or some other issue that a parent might have. I've heard horror stories about when a child has sex with someone that a parent has made them get married," she said, adding most of the time it's a young woman.
The minimum age to marry varies from state to state, ranging between 14 and 18. Utah is among a handful of states that allows 15-year-olds to marry.
Marrying under age 18 poses a health risk for young women, Romero said. Children who marry are also more likely to divorce and drop out of high school and less likely to graduate from college, she said.
Nicholeen Peck, representing the Worldwide Organization of Women, spoke against the bill in the committee meeting. She said people grow at different rates and are ready for things at different times in their lives.
"Each person's situation could be very uniquely different," she said. "Some people could feel like getting married when they have a pregnancy that maybe they didn't plan on ahead of time is the morally right thing to do for them. I think we need to open the door for that."
Clark, who is now "happily" remarried to a "wonderful" man, said pregnancy is not a good enough reason to marry.
"If a relationship is strong enough to form a healthy marriage, it's strong enough to wait until both parties are adults," she said after the hearing.22 comments on this story
Romero said she was approached by a former Republican state lawmaker to run the bill this year.
"This really doesn't have an R or a D behind it," she said.
Although it's getting late in the legislative session, Romero said she believes she has time to get it through the House and Senate. If it doesn't, she said, she would bring it back next year.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, will carry the bill in the Senate.
"I felt like if we're talking about young women, women need to be the voice of this bill," Romero said.