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Spencer Rendahl: Too Young To Marry

My daughter’s in seventh grade - the age of pre-algebra, dances, and crushes. Once it was also the age of many newlyweds and it startles me to realize that in New Hampshire, legally speaking, it still can be. Because of a hundred plus year old state law still in effect, with a judge’s approval, New Hampshire girls can get married at thirteen and boys at fourteen – too young for a driver’s license, but not for a marriage license.

And there’s no limit on the age difference between partners. According to the Concord Monitor, between nineteen ninety five and two thousand twelve in New Hampshire, three hundred and thirteen girls and forty six boys got married while still under the age of eighteen.

Some states have even laxer laws. An investigation by Frontline showed that with judicial approval, Massachusetts girls can marry at age twelve and boys at fourteen. In Maine, judicial approval is required for kids marrying under age sixteen but there's no legal lower age limit. Vermont forbids marriage under the age sixteen.

Kentucky has one of the highest child marriage rates in the country, second only to Idaho. So earlier this month, the Kentucky legislature passed a tougher standard, forbidding marriage for children of age sixteen or younger and requiring judicial approval for marriages at age seventeen.

No American state has passed a law that categorically forbids kids under the age of eighteen to marry. Some argue that child marriage bans would lead to more out-of-wedlock births. Others argue against restrictions on libertarian grounds.

But child marriages usually don’t end well. According to The Economist, roughly three quarters of child marriages end in divorce. Married children are more likely to live in poverty and suffer spousal abuse, and less likely to finish high school and college than their adult-married peers.

So now, the New Hampshire house has passed a bill that would raise the age for marriage to sixteen. And it’s waiting for a vote by the state senate – but even better would be to ban marriage under the age of eighteen, which UNICEF calls a violation of human rights.

I’m proud of New Hampshire’s libertarian roots, which helped it become one of the first states to sanction gay marriage. But allowing kids too young to vote to marry isn’t freedom; it’s negligence.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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