updated 4/15/2005 8:35:45 AM ET 2005-04-15T12:35:45

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill Thursday allowing pregnant women to divorce their husbands — a measure prompted by a judge’s strict interpretation of Washington’s child support law.

“We thought this was the law about 50 years ago,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the bill’s sponsor.

“No kidding,” Gregoire responded. “I was surprised.”

The bill was inspired by the case of Shawnna Hughes, whose divorce from an abusive husband was denied by Judge Paul Bastine. The judge ruled state law said marriages can’t be dissolved until the paternity of the unborn child is established — so the state knows who should pay child support.

His interpretation “set very dangerous policies for women, particularly women in violent relationships,” said Terri Sloyer, Hughes’ lawyer. “You’re basically holding them hostage in relationships with abusers.”

Dickerson said judges across the state have made similar decisions in divorce cases. The bill Gregoire signed adds two sentences to state law, clarifying that judges can’t use pregnancy as the sole basis for denying or delaying a divorce. Dickerson said the bill was crafted to avoid conflicts with the state’s child support law.

The new law will take effect July 23.

However, it won’t help Hughes, who gave birth last month to a healthy baby girl. She is still fighting for the right to divorce. Her appeal is scheduled for oral arguments next month.

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