(NEW YORK) — A longstanding law in Missouri that, in some cases, may prevent a pregnant woman from getting divorced is gaining national attention.

Headlines about the law, in place since the 1970s, went viral in recent weeks due to interest in women’s reproductive rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade, and because of newly introduced legislation that would make changes to the current law.

Here are five questions answered about the law in Missouri and how it impacts women:

1. Does the law specifically state that pregnant women cannot get legally divorced?

No, the current law states that “whether the wife is pregnant” is one of eight pieces of information that must be presented in the divorce petition, along with other information like the date of separation and the names and ages of children.

By requiring the disclosure of pregnancy status in the divorce petition, however, the subject of pregnancy can then be considered in the divorce, legal experts say.

“Just because it’s not a ban on the books doesn’t mean that it’s not being interpreted in that way,” Rachel J. Wechsler, J.D., DPhil, MSc, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, told ABC News. “There are clearly situations in practice where the existing statute is being interpreted by judges as, ‘Because the wife’s pregnancy status has to be provided, that’s the legislature telling us that we should be considering it when we are proceeding with a divorce and deciding whether to finalize it."”

2. If the law has been in place since the 1970s, why is it making news now?

The law is getting attention now both because of the newly introduced legislation to change it, and because of the way it highlights pregnancy status at a time when women have less access to reproductive rights, according to Wechsler.

In the two years since the Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Missouri has become one of 16 states that have ceased nearly all abortion services.

The lack of access to reproductive health makes the required inclusion of pregnancy status in divorce proceedings all the more striking, according to Wechsler. She added the law is also getting attention, in her opinion, because of its “archaic” nature.

“I think one of the reasons this has gotten particular attention is because it singles out pregnancy status, which feels also really archaic,” Wechsler said. “We no longer, in this day and age, see pregnancy as a barrier to working and doing things in life, so to be thinking that it could impact something, I feel like there’s a reflexive response of, ‘We shouldn’t be making any decisions or any sort of conditions based on someone’s pregnancy status."”

Denise Lieberman, adjunct professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, echoed Wechsler, saying she believes people are surprised by the law.

“The truth of the matter is that I think this is gaining attention, this particular bill, because a lot of people didn’t realize it was still on the books,” Lieberman told ABC News.

3. What changes would new legislation make to the current law?

Missouri state Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat, introduced legislation in January that would repeal the current statute requiring the inclusion of pregnancy status in a divorce petition.

Aune’s bill instead specifically states, “Pregnancy status shall not prevent the court from entering a judgment of dissolution of marriage or legal separation.”

The legislation was discussed at a House Emerging Issues Committee hearing in February, but no further legislative action has been scheduled.

Lieberman described the legislation as both “necessary and needed.”

“This legislation is a necessary and needed modernization of divorce law,” she said, adding, “In 2024, an individual who is pregnant, regardless of their marital status, has a right to determine who to share that information with and has a right to autonomy on decisions on their future life.”

4. What are the pros and cons of keeping Missouri’s law as is?

Both Lieberman and Wechsler noted that it is extremely commonplace for custody and support issues to be continually modified as divorce proceedings continue and are finalized.

“The person can reveal the pregnancy over the course of the divorce proceedings and seek child support at that time, or the person can go back after the birth of the child and seek to amend the divorce decree to address custody and child support concerns, but they also have the ability not to,” Lieberman said.

She added, “Certainly divorces include lots of determinations about property, about children and child support, and those things can change over time, and they frequently do.”

The danger of pregnancy status being involved in divorce, according to Lieberman, Wechsler and other advocates of Aune’s bill, is that keeping a pregnant woman in a marriage she is trying to leave can increase the risk of intimate partner violence.

Lieberman said the language in Missouri’s current law allows the non-pregnant spouse to hold the other “hostage” during divorce proceedings, which can lead to bad acts.

“What we know statistically is that pregnancy is associated with an increase in intimate partner violence,” Lieberman said, “which is why pregnancy is considered one of the most dangerous times in a household where intimate partner violence is going on.”

Wechsler said she worries that even though Missouri does not ban divorce during pregnancy, the ambiguity of the law can lead to coercion by an abusive spouse.

“It can be used as a tool of abuse because the abuser can say, ‘There’s a ban on getting divorced while you’re pregnant, so don’t even try,’ even though there is no ban,” she said. “Abusers can use it to say, ‘You’re not allowed to divorce me."”

5. Do laws like Missouri’s exist in other states?

It is not exactly clear how many other states have laws in place that are identical to Missouri’s, according to Lieberman and Wechsler.

Wechsler said she searched a handful of states identified as potentially restricting divorce during pregnancy and found that only Arizona currently has a law similar to Missouri’s, requiring that pregnancy status be provided in a divorce petition.

She noted though that while all states now allow no-fault divorces, a number of states require waiting periods for a divorce to be finalized.

“In some states, there are rules like a divorce can’t be finalized for a year, and that can also make someone feel trapped,” Wechsler said. “But it’s also important to realize that most divorces don’t happen overnight. Divorce is often an extended process.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.