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R.I. Senate unanimously votes to remove spousal exemption for rape of incapacitated victims

“We need to update this archaic law because consent is every person’s inalienable right,” the state senator who sponsored the bill said

State Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat
State Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport DemocratHandout

PROVIDENCE — The state Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to allow criminal charges to be brought when a person is raped by their spouse while the victim is incapacitated.

“We need to update this archaic law because consent is every person’s inalienable right,” said Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Rhode Island’s first-degree sexual assault law states that: “The accused, not being the spouse, knows or has reason to know that the victim is mentally incapacitated, mentally disabled, or physically helpless.” The legislation would remove the words “not being the spouse.”

“It’s obviously long overdue for it to be removed,” Euer said in an interview after the vote.

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Issues such as this can become “generational fights,” she said, but this generation’s message is crystal clear: “Consent is important. We are living in a time – post #MeToo movement – where people are very focused on making sure those who are committing rape and sexual assault are being held accountable.”

Groups such as Day One and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence brought the spousal exemption in Rhode Island law to the attention of the Senate last year, Euer said. The pandemic prevented immediate action, but Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, brought the bill to Euer, she said.

And on Tuesday, the bill passed by a vote of 37 to 0, with no one speaking against it.

The legislation now goes to the House of Representatives, where the House Judiciary Committee on Monday recommended passage of companion legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert E. Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat.

According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 10 to 14 percent of married women in the United States have been raped by their husbands, Euer said.

She said it took until 1993 for all 50 states to recognize marital rape in at least some form as a criminal act, but many states, including Rhode Island, still allow exemptions in situations where the victim is unable to provide consent, such as when the victim is asleep or unconscious, she said.

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These kinds of laws are echoes of an outdated idea, found in English law in the 1600s, that marriage conveys irrevocable consent, she said.

“Just as we no longer tolerate onerous laws that treat women as the property of their husbands, we have to eliminate the spousal exemption in our rape law,” Euer said. “Marriage is not giving up the right to your bodily autonomy. Eliminating the spousal exemption is affirming the human rights that belong to every single person.”

On Tuesday, the Senate also voted 37 to 0 for a bill that would set maximum contamination levels of certain “forever chemicals” – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – in drinking water and surface water, while also setting standards for PFAS monitoring at landfills.

“It’s a very good environmental bill, it’s a health-conscious bill,” said Senator Walter S. Felag Jr., a Warren Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “It will really assist us in navigating the impacts of these man-made chemicals that were used in industrial and consumer products.”

A total of 18 states have taken similar steps, including most of New England, Felag said. “It’s about time we joined the crowd,” he said.

Massachusetts enacted new safety regulations last fall, and the Globe has reported that 20 percent of public water sources that have done testing report PFAS concentrations above what state regulations allow, prompting some towns there to distribute bottled water or install filtration systems.

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The Rhode Island Department of Health is in process of writing PFAS regulations, but Representative June S. Speakman, a Warren Democrat, has said, “My preference is to embed the process in law.” She has introduced legislation along with Felag, saying, “It’s time for Rhode Island to do something.”







Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.