SEATTLE -- The day she was granted a divorce from her abusive husband, Shawnna J. Hughes said, was "the happiest day of my life." But barely a week later, the 27-year-old medical assistant was back before a judge, who rescinded the order after learning Hughes was pregnant by another man.
"Not only is it the policy of this court, it is the policy of the state that you cannot dissolve a marriage when one of the parties is pregnant," Superior Court Judge Paul A. Bastine told Hughes on Nov. 4.
The ruling has provoked outrage among women's rights groups and provided ample fodder for local talk-radio hosts and newspaper columnists.
Analysts said there was no blanket prohibition in the laws of this or any other state against pregnant women getting divorced; several Seattle-area family law practitioners said they had obtained divorces for pregnant clients.
The law states that any Washington resident who files for a no-fault divorce can get one. Hughes's husband did not respond to her petition, and a divorce was granted. But Bastine said the divorce was invalid because Hughes did not learn she was pregnant until after the papers were served, so her husband was not aware of all the facts.
Hughes is appealing Bastine's decision.
The judge said in a telephone interview that the case involved a thicket of other legal issues -- especially because Hughes was receiving public-aid benefits, so the state had an interest in determining paternity.
But several legal scholars questioned his reasoning, saying the law provided for paternity issues to be settled separately from a divorce. In Washington, a child born as many as 300 days after a divorce is legally presumed to have been fathered by the former husband unless a paternity test proves otherwise. Hughes said she and the man with whom she became pregnant planned to have such a test after the birth.
"I cannot think of any policy that would require this woman to stay married to a person who was in prison for abusing her," said Carol Bruch, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.
In any event, Hughes, who lives in Spokane and is due to give birth in March, remains married to her abuser -- a situation she describes as psychologically devastating. She said her six-year union with Carlos Hughes was "more like a prison than a marriage."
When she got pregnant in June, Hughes said, her estranged husband was serving time for domestic assault. She said she has had no contact with Carlos Hughes, who recently was transferred to a jail in Montana to await trial on federal drug charges, for two years.
But, she said, her husband called her grandmother from the jail and told her that he was taking the pregnancy as "a sign from God" that the couple should be together. "It made my stomach turn," Shawnna Hughes said.
Although there is a restraining order preventing Carlos Hughes from initiating any contact, Shawnna Hughes said she was terrified by the prospect of him coming back.
She has custody of their two boys, ages 5 and 3.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Women's Law Center, an advocacy group in Seattle, have joined in Shawnna Hughes's appeal. If the ruling is upheld, they say, it not only amounts to discrimination, but also could establish a perverse incentive for an abusive husband to get his wife pregnant in order to force her to stay married.
And it could prompt some women to terminate their pregnancies to obtain a divorce, critics say.
"You can't use a woman's status as a pregnant person to discriminate against her," said Lisa Stone, executive director of the women's law center. "You simply can't say, well, everyone else in the state is entitled to get a divorce in a timely fashion, except this one group of people."
Further roiling the case, Bastine told Shawnna Hughes that she had forced a prolongation of her marriage on herself with the "intentional act" of getting pregnant.
"You have created the situation by your own actions that delay your opportunity to dissolve your marriage," he said in the Nov. 4 hearing.
Getting pregnant with a friend from her high school days was unintentional, Hughes said, the result of failed birth control.
Regardless, said her lawyer, Terri Sloyer, the standard right to obtain a divorce after the 90-day waiting period should not be affected by a pregnancy.
"What are we telling women here?" Sloyer said. "We're not living in 15th-century England."
Carlos Hughes did not return requests for comment submitted to him at the detention center in Montana.