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In Ala., rape conviction now means no parental rights

A new Alabama law requires judges to terminate the parental rights of people convicted of first-degree rape and certain other sex crimes, narrowing a legal loophole that allows rapists to seek custody of children conceived through their assaults.

The mandate is part of a new statute known as Jessi’s Law, which severs the parental rights of people who sexually assault their own children. But the 10-page measure includes one sentence with a much larger scope. Gina Maiola, press secretary for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, said the line terminates all parental rights of any person convicted of sexually assaulting anyone else, regardless of the victim’s age or relationship to the attacker.

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The issue of parental rights for rapists gained fresh relevance in May, after Alabama lawmakers passed the nation’s strictest ban on abortion, outlawing the procedure even in cases of rape or incest. While the abortion law has been challenged in court, abortion rights activists fear it could force rape victims to bear children and then co-parent with their attackers.

Maiola said the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, will address the issue — at least in cases where the assault results in a conviction. The law applies in cases of first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, and incest.

But activists say that, because the law requires a conviction, it leaves many victims vulnerable, since most sexual assaults are never reported, much less punished in court. They say Alabama judges should terminate custody if there is ‘‘clear and convincing evidence’’ that an attack occurred — the standard used in a majority of states, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Jessi’s Law was named for a girl who was raped by her biological father. Representative Will Dismukes introduced the measure during the recent legislative session, telling The Washington Post that it was intended only to address cases such as Jessi’s, in which a judge is seeking to terminate an abuser’s custody rights of their abused child.

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