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Live Mic: Author warns against decriminalizing polygamy in Utah

People arrive at the Matheson Courthouse Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Members of a community on the Utah-Arizona border that is home to Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect are expected to raise concerns with a judge about favoritism and a lack of transparency by a board that oversees a former church trust that manages evictions and resales of homes and properties in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY — Decriminalizing polygamy in Utah, a move aimed at helping victims of the practice feel more comfortable reporting crimes, could have unintended consequences, according to a professor and author.

That’s as the state legislature moves forward on a bill that would do just that.

Polygamy at the state capitol

The state Senate voted 27-0, and the House 70-3, to reduce the crime from a felony to an infraction, such as jaywalking, among consenting adults.

Gov. Gary Herbert has signaled that he would sign bill SB102 into law, saying it’s “probably warranted” to no longer make the act a felony. But under the bill, polygamy committed along with other crimes such as fraud, abuse and domestic violence, would remain a felony.

Polygamy in Utah has been illegal since the time of statehood.

The Utah Constitution still says “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.”

Silence of the victim

The main sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson of Spanish Fork, said the intent behind decriminalizing polygamy in Utah is to protect women and children living in polygamous communities. She says they would not otherwise come forward to report other crimes for fear of facing a felony charge.

Henderson said her bill is designed to make it easier to flee polygamy by removing the barriers to social integration.

“Some women shared how they had been abused, but family members pressured them to ‘sweep it under the rug’ because of the high stakes involved in reporting to law enforcement,” Henderson wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune on Feb. 7. She said the law now lets a shadow society survive, where perpetrators thrive and victims are silenced.

Polygamy was common among early followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who settled Utah in the mid-19th century but began to abandon the practice in 1890 as a condition of statehood.

The consequences of decriminalizing polygamy in Utah

Brown University professor Rose McDermott, the author of a volume of research called “The Evils of Polygyny,” told Lee Lonsberry on his show “Live Mic” that it was “quite destructive to decriminalize polygamy legislation.”

McDermott listed a range of harms correlated with polygamy, which she labeled “downstream consequences.”

  • Higher rates of birth in young girls, especially ages between 15 and 19,
  • Lower rates of education for boys and girls, including lower rates of secondary education for boys,
  • Higher rates of HIV infection,
  • Higher rates of sex trafficking,
  • Lower interbirth intervals (i.e. the time between the birth of one child and the birth of the next), which can raise the rate of birth defects in children.

Other consequences

In addition, McDermott added there are financial consequences for society at large.

“In order for the math to work, you are basically kicking out half of the boys in the community around the time of puberty” for the polygamy system to work, she said.

These boys have no social support, no education, she added, and become wards of either the criminal justice system or the welfare state, which amounts to a financial tax on the rest of the community.

McDermott said decriminalizing polygamy forces taxpayers to fund a lifestyle choice that they may not necessarily agree with.

She also disagrees with the bill’s ability to make it easier for girls and women to flee polygamy.

“What makes it difficult to come forward,” she said, is the psychological trauma of the victim, not an external law or absence of one.

An estimated 40,000 Utahns still lived in polygamous families in 1998.