AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Who decides if you're too young to marry? There's growing recognition that many young teenagers are marrying in the U.S. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, several states are debating whether to step in and ban all marriages under the age of 18.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The young marriages run the gamut - they're teens of every ethnicity and religion, many are American-born, and they're not all being forced into arranged marriages.
RACHEL HOLBROOK: To be honest, I begged my parents to let me get married.
SMITH: Rachel Holbrook was 15 when she decided she wanted to marry her 21-year-old boyfriend. Partly, she says, it was her fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
HOLBROOK: I thought that was God's will for my life.
SMITH: The other part was her belief that premarital sex was a sin.
HOLBROOK: You know, at that age (laughter), sex is very high on your priority list.
SMITH: Holbrook says after threatening to never speak to her parents again, they finally signed papers allowing her to marry at 17. Four kids and 12 years later, she divorced.
HOLBROOK: I know how strongly you think you know what you want at that age, but the truth of the matter is I was a kid when I got married. And I think that's almost in every case a bad idea.
SMITH: Advocates say child marriage undermines girls' health, education and economic opportunities, and puts them at higher risk for abuse and divorce. Data collected by the Tahirih Justice Center from New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia shows some 14,000 underage marriages in 10 years.
VANESSA ATTERBEARY: That's shocking.
SMITH: Maryland delegate Vanessa Atterbeary says she was also stunned by how many 14 and 15-year-olds were marrying guys a decade or two older. Like most states, Maryland sets the minimum marriage age at 18, but teens can easily get around that with a note from their parents or a doctor's note saying they're pregnant.
Atterbeary's pushing a bill to tighten those loopholes, and even stricter measures are pending in New Jersey and New York, where assembly member Amy Paulin wants to ban all marriages under 18.
AMY PAULIN: No exceptions. I think it's inappropriate.
SMITH: Another measure in Virginia was just signed into law. State Sen. Jill Vogel filed it after hearing that a man in his 50s was in a relationship with a 15-year-old girl. That's statutory rape. But when investigators started closing in on him, he married the girl, making it no longer a crime.
JILL VOGEL: People said, how is it possible that in Virginia that's allowed? You know, it's just appalling.
SMITH: Married teens, Vogel says, are extra vulnerable because as minors, they can't get a restraining order, for example, or go to a domestic violence shelter. But now, under Virginia's new law, 16 and 17-year-olds who want to marry have to convince a judge that they should be legally emancipated.
VOGEL: Someone would at least be looking to see that they're not being coerced, that the individual's mature enough to decide to marry, and that the marriage is not going to endanger the minor in any way. And then in that case, they'd be allowed to get married. Otherwise, you've got to be 18.
SMITH: The bill passed over some objections.
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RICHARD MORRIS: Mr. Speaker, will the gentle-lady yield for a question?
SMITH: Republican delegate Richard Morris argued it'd be better to change other laws - for example, letting minors get restraining orders - rather than have courts start deciding who's mature enough to marry.
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MORRIS: I think that is a huge infringement on parental rights and responsibilities, and that's why I will not support this bill.
SMITH: A group advocating for children's rights has also raised objections. Stephanie Nilva, head of Day One, says it's good to have a court make sure that parental consent is not actually parental coercion, but she says some young people have legitimate reasons to get married - like custody concerns or death benefits - and an outright ban could put them at risk.
STEPHANIE NILVA: I just believe in the autonomy of youth and that young people are in the best position to determine whether they're safe, and also whether they want to be married.
MARY HALL: No, they're kids.
SMITH: Mary Hall will tell you kids don't know as much as they think. She was 16 when she decided marrying a guy she met five months earlier was a great idea because she didn't want to live at home anymore.
HALL: (Laughter) It seemed like marriage was the best way out. I mean, I was 16.
SMITH: By 20, Hall was divorced with two kids. She thinks the marriage age should at least be 18. It makes no sense, she says, to tell teens they're too young to get a tattoo or vote but not too young to marry. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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