Crossing partisan battle lines and taking heavy fire from both sides, Rep. Forrest Bennett unwittingly opened a new front in the abortion wars with a bill tying child support to conception.
The Democratic state legislator positioned Oklahoma House Bill 3129 as a countermeasure to state “trigger laws” that would impose sharp limits on abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“If Oklahoma is going to restrict a woman’s right to choose, we sure better make sure the man involved can’t just walk away from his responsibility,” Bennett wrote in a Jan. 21 tweet.
The bill would require a biological father to pay 50% of the mother’s pregnancy expenses, including health insurance premiums and medical costs “incurred after the date of conception and before the pregnancy ends.” Upon a child’s birth, existing child support requirements kick in.
If he was aiming for a clever clapback to male abortion opponents who don’t bear the burden of unintended pregnancies, Bennett’s message backfired in a big way. HB 3129 divided the abortion-rights camp and drew overwhelming support from conservatives, who flooded Bennett’s Twitter feed with ringing endorsements.
“Every pro-life person I’ve ever known would welcome this,” wrote Casey Mattox, the vice president for legal and judicial strategy at Americans for Prosperity. “If you think it’s an ‘own’ consider that maybe you don’t understand the position and people you’re opposing.”
Anti-abortion activists proceeded to roast Bennett with a meme combining two stock characters: Wojak, who KnowYourMeme.com describes as representing “people who do not think for themselves or are incapable of having an internal monologue,” and Yes Chad, aka Nordic Gamer, “usually used to debase those attempting to mock or bully a person for their personal traits or interests.”
In a three-panel version of the meme, a stern-faced Wojak summarizes the premise: “If abortion is illegal, then men abandoning women should also be illegal. If this is permanent for the woman, it should be for the man!”
Yes Chad leans in and whispers in Wojak’s ear: “Your terms are acceptable.” A crestfallen look replaces the sneer on Wojak’s cartoon face.
Bennett’s political rivals called his bluff, so he sounded the retreat, tweeting the next day that he’s “not moving forward with this bill as written” and seeking input from his constituents on Herd, an Oklahoma-based platform connecting registered voters with policymakers.
The about-face drew a fresh round of recriminations on Twitter, with most replies blasting him for yanking the bill from consideration.
“You found a path with bipartisan agreement and this is what you do with it?” one user, Jordan Rhea, scolded.
The legislation represents a Catch-22 for abortion rights supporters. On one hand, there’s substantial agreement that women who carry a pregnancy to term should be entitled to financial support. On the other hand, recognizing prenatal responsibilities could be a Trojan horse for expanding paternal rights. Could states that order pregnancy cost-sharing require men’s consent for an abortion?
That’s an obvious nonstarter in the abortion-rights camp, and in cases of rape, incest and domestic violence, such a law could produce manifestly monstrous results. Yet if financial obligations could come without a male veto on the right to choose, the practical wisdom is difficult to ignore.
Such considerations could become part of the national debate in a post-Roe landscape. On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to Mississippi’s state law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. A ruling is expected this summer.
Bennett isn’t the first to connect the real or imagined dots between abortion and child support. Dave Chappelle raised the issue in his 2019 Netflix comedy special “Sticks and Stones,” though controversy over transphobia allegations overshadowed the brief bit.
First declaring himself an abortion rights supporter, Chappelle proceeds to argue that estranged fathers shouldn’t be required to pay for their noncustodial children.
“If you can kill this (expletive), I can at least abandon him,” he said. “It’s my money, my choice. And if I’m wrong, perhaps we’re wrong.”
Punchlines aren’t policy prescriptions, so don’t expect Chappelle to lead the next anti-abortion march. But the intersection of bodily agency, economics and law is fertile ground for some challenging conversations.