South Carolina lawmakers said Thursday they will introduce a bill eliminating all marriages under the age of 18 without exception.
They also voted to advance a separate proposal erasing an existing loophole that allows girls of any age to get married if they are pregnant or have given birth.
Only two states — New Jersey and Delaware — forbid all marriages under the age of 18.
Meanwhile, a national movement to close marriage loopholes in other states is gaining ground.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican, said during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee meeting Thursday she wants to let both bills run the legislative course "side by side."
"Maybe we can take the big step," Shealy said. "But if we don’t, we can take the baby step."
If the bill to eliminate the pregnancy loophole is signed into law, teenagers who are 16 and 17 would still be allowed to get married in South Carolina with their parents' permission.
"Statistically, this age group is most vulnerable to intimate partner violence," said Ann Warner, CEO of the Women's Rights and Empowerment Network, who testified during the hearing.
Eliminating the pregnancy loophole, while a step in the right direction, would not protect the 16- and 17-year-olds, Warner said. Women who get married as teenagers face higher divorce rates, higher high school drop-out rates and will more likely develop mental health problems, she said.
Setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 is "the strongest, simplest and most effective way to stop child marriage and its harmful consequences," Warner said.
She cited an investigation by The Post and Courier last year that found nearly 7,000 underage girls have married older males in South Carolina in the past 20 years. Some of those brides have been as young as 12 and 13.
As recently as 2014, a 14-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man were granted a marriage license in this state.
Evie Lane, who also testified Thursday, told lawmakers she was forced to marry her now-ex-husband when she was 14.
"My husband had complete control over me," Lane said. "My parents had no rights over me whatsoever."
Lane told The Post and Courier last year she had two children by the age of 15. She said the proposed bills will help stop this from happening to other girls.
"It needs to be stopped," she said. "I had no voice."
The newspaper's 2018 report found South Carolina's marriage laws are interpreted differently throughout the state. Some county probate judges will not grant marriage licenses to applicants under the age of 16. Others do not believe state law sets a minimum age. Probate judges in South Carolina are elected, but not required to hold law degrees.
Many of them agree that the marriage laws need to be clarified by the Legislature.
The subcommittee also advanced bills Thursday addressing human trafficking and prostitution.