I met my father at my mother’s funeral. I was 36 years old.
I was standing next to the open casket, greeting family and friends, when Aunt Mary grabbed my arm and pointed to a bearded man pacing back and forth behind a row of metal chairs. “Well, look who’s here,” she said. And when I failed to recognize the man she was pointing to, said, “Girl, that’s your dad!” and waved him over.
My father left my mother when I was a baby, before my first birthday. He was only 22, but his leaving marked both his second divorce and his second abandoned baby, providing no support, financial or otherwise. He simply disappeared.
So as Gov. Kay Ivey (R-Ala.) signed her state’s draconian antiabortion bill into law last week, I combed over the coverage with one specific angle in mind. I pored through the horrifying details about how doctors who performed an abortion could receive up to 99 years in prison, read there would be no exceptions for rape or incest, and learned that women and girls, no matter their age, would be required to carry a fetus to term. No exceptions.
What I have yet to see in a single line in any of these new abortion bills — Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Utah, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas — is accountability or penalties for the impregnators.
I was born and abandoned by my birth father in Cape Girardeau, Mo. When I was 6 years old, he signed away his parental rights — my stepfather wanted to adopt me — which had the added bonus of making him legally immune from both past and future child support.
Men like him in states like Missouri and Alabama don’t seem to be on anyone’s minds during this new rush to criminalize abortion. But they should be. A woman, after all, cannot get pregnant without a man’s sperm. This new definition of when life begins should be prompting a lot of questions about how the law really works when it comes to men’s moral and financial responsibility.
Where is the list of actions required, under penalty of law, for fathers? If life starts at conception, shouldn’t the father be required to pay for 50 percent of the medical bills incurred during pregnancy? If the father is not married to the mother, will she be allowed to use his health insurance plan? Can she claim the fetus on her taxes? Can she take out life insurance immediately and, if she miscarries, collect death benefits? Can the father? If the mother has a difficult pregnancy and cannot work or has to go on bed rest, will the father be required by law to support her financially? What will be the penalty for a father abandoning a fetus? How many years in prison? Will he have to pay a fine? If he has no money, will the state cover his child support payments? For how long?
After more than 35 years in absentia, my father finally showed up at the funeral home. I thought he looked familiar and vaguely recalled seeing him when I was about 17, but I couldn’t quite place him.
Standing next to my mother’s casket, we shook hands. He said, “Sorry about your mom.” And while I’m sure we both said more words, I no longer remember any of them. In the end, he pulled a business card from his wallet, wrote his number on the back in blue ballpoint ink and said, “Call us next time you’re in town.”
Who is us? I wondered.
I found out one day when I logged into Facebook and my father’s photo appeared under the words “People You May Know.” I clicked on his image and, with the magic that happens only in cyberspace, landed in my father’s life. There he was with his family: a wife, two sons, a daughter. I devoured his page. There were status updates on whether he’d be going to church that week, his inquiries about the health of friends, warnings of a coming thunderstorm (“a big one on it’s way!”) and some long banter with one of his sons about some inside joke.
I noted his birthday. My father has a birthday. How had I never known this? November 29. A Sagittarius. I typed the words “Sagittarius characteristics” into my browser and these traits appeared on my screen: magnanimous, honest, expansive, generous, reckless, extroverted, proud, larger than life, free.
With these new antiabortion laws, we have prison time for doctors. We have humiliation and punishment for girls and women. What we don’t have are laws to address the impregnators, the abandoners, the shirkers of personal, social and financial responsibility.
My father was invisible for most of my life. Apparently, to the lawmakers in Alabama and Missouri and everywhere else who are so sure they know what’s best for women, that’s exactly how it should be.
Teri Carter is a writer living in central Kentucky.