My very favorite blog, Jezebel.com, is a group blog with many contributors. Two of the writers disagree about whether or not the pregnancy of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 17 year old daughter Bristol is fair game for discussion.
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In order to rebut the aforementioned rumors, and (more likely) to save her daughter the humiliation of even worse headlines, Sarah Palin today released a statement that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol Palin is five months pregnant and plans to marry her boyfriend. The McCain campaign reportedly knew about the pregnancy but didn’t plan to disclose it to the world or think that it disqualified Sarah Palin (Bristol’s mother) from running for the Vice Presidency. Naturally, this has led many of the same people who spent the weekend trafficking in the rumors about Trig Palin — Sarah’s infant son with Down’s Syndrome — to crow wildly about how Bristol Palin, a fucking seventeen-year-old girl, if you’ve forgotten — is the new anti- poster child for abstinence-only education. Of course those claims are well-researched.
Because, for one, most schools in Alaska do teach comprehensive sex-ed, and the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development offers schools a choice of curricula that include programs focusing on abstinence without endorsing a specific program. In fact, there have even been debates in Alaska since the start of Palin’s tenure whether exempting children from comprehensive sex ed is constitutional. Palin’s statements on abstinence-only education date to one questionnaire from a right-wing group during her campaign in 2006 when asked the following question:
Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?
In answer to that leading question which conflates comprehensive sexual education with condom and Pill distribution, her campaign answered:
Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.
In the last year and a half, searches of her office’s website and the Guttmacher Institute revealed no abstinence-only initiatives by her administration. Simply put, Sarah Palin is by no means the world’s biggest promoter of abstinence-only education, as some people are claiming.
Is it possible that she supports it (or supported it)? Sure, it’s certainly a Republican initiative. But there’s no evidence that I can find that she yanked Bristol out of sex ed classes or denied her contraceptive education. To make a 17-year-old girl who didn’t likely choose either to be pregnant or to be some political football the new poster child for attacking her mother’s policy positions doesn’t leave any better a taste in my mouth this afternoon than I had this morning.
On a more personal note, though, let those of us who did remain abstinent in high school (and thereafter) and always practiced safe sex throw stones. I lost my virginity at 16 not because I wasn’t exposed to comprehensive sex ed or because my parents were too religious or even too permissive. I chose to have sex with my high school boyfriend because I loved him deeply and because I wanted to. The two of us were honors students, tops of our classes, responsible and reliable and I’ll be damned if I can sit here and swear that we were the safest sex practitioners on God’s green earth. That we didn’t end up pregnant had likely a lot more to do with luck than it did a rigorous adherence to what Ms. H. taught us in health class. And, had we gotten pregnant, I would’ve strongly preferred to get an abortion — but I don’t think he would’ve been quite as enthusiastic about that alternative.
I can only imagine the courage it took for Bristol to go to her parents, pregnant at 17, and lay out one of the most personal aspects of human life — her sexual activities — and the consequences of those activities and that she was choosing to keep the child despite the high probability of political embarrassment that would be laid at her mother’s doorstep. And all of that was before her mother was about to be made VP. She didn’t by any means choose the easy path here, and everyone probably fully expected that this big reveal would happen at some point rather soon. That it has doesn’t make my bile rise any less with every post I read about how, ha-ha, look what happens when you promote abstinence. Once again, even for this great lover of Schandenfreude, my lips are curling in a little disgust with the glee shown by some of my political compatriots at this news.
Yes, we need to have a rational conversation in this country about striking the balance between providing students with age-appropriate sex education and a rational discussion about moral values and their role in making sexual choices. I am a full and complete supporter of comprehensive sex ed — which includes information like "there is no such thing as blue balls" and "no means no" and "saying no to sex can be a sign of respect for both of you." But clapping our hands in joyous rubbernecking over Bristol Palin’s being in the family way is not going to be the start of any discussion. It makes us look as judge-y as we accuse Them of being, it makes us look like abortion-promoters instead of choice-respecters (it does mean both choices, after all) and it makes us look like we think a 17-year-old target is easier to hit than a 44-year-old target. Sex education will be a great topic for discussion and reform in an Obama Administration, and it wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — involve the now rather-public embarrassment or shaming of a 17-year-old girl.
When Sarah Palin gave her introductory speech on Friday in Dayton, Ohio, she spent a minute or two thanking the McCains and uttering various pleasantries about her nomination before launching into a several minute spiel about her family — about her snowmobilin’ husband, Todd, and about her oldest son, Track, who enlisted in the army on September 11th and will be deployed to Iraq on the same day this month. After that, she talked about what a great man and patriot John McCain is. In the nearly 20 minute speech, we learned literally nothing about Palin’s policy, except that she "never really set out to be in public affairs," adding,"I was just your average ‘Hockey Mom’ in Alaska." And let’s be honest: were Palin not a woman, and not a mom, she wouldn’t be anywhere near the Republican ticket. Her motherhood is the crux of her public image. Which is why I must respectfully disagree with Megan that Bristol Palin’s pregnancy should be off-limits.
Of course, I agree that Bristol should not be shamed for having sex, nor should she be judged for her choice to keep her baby. However, how can any pundit worth his or her salt not mention this pregnancy when talking about John McCain’s abysmal record with sex education? As CBS News notes, "In 2006, McCain joined fellow Republicans in voting against a Senate Democratic proposal to send $100 million to communities for teen-pregnancy prevention programs that would have included sex education about contraceptives."
One of the few things we know Palin’s stance on is abortion, and as has been noted before, Palin wants to eliminate reproductive choice in this country. Which makes it curious, then, that as Rebecca Traister over on Salon notices, the language of choice still pervades the party’s public statements about Bristol. "According to the New York Times story, ‘Bristol Palin made the decision on her own to keep the baby, McCain aides said.’ That’s just peachy in its presumption that Bristol had a choice about whether or not to continue her pregnancy," Traister writes. "It’s true that in 2008, she certainly does have a legal choice. But she wouldn’t under the proposed administration of her mother and John McCain, both of whom oppose abortion rights and tell us they would work to overturn Roe."
Like it or not, especially in this election, the personal is political: the fact that Palin had a baby with Down syndrome is already being used as a Republican talking point. Timothy Shriver notes in Newsweek, "Trig could be a high-profile example of how wonderful it can be to choose life, even in adversity, even when the conditions aren’t perfect. After all, the conditions are never perfect, but the promise of a newborn baby is that God’s love is. Somehow, despite everything, love is triumphant. The message: Love life. Choose life." And you can be sure as hell that Palin and the Republicans would be happy to use Trig’s existence to push their anti-choice message. How does the logic work then, that while 17-year-old Bristol should be protected, a four-month-old baby boy is fair game?
Also. There is evidence that McCain did not thoroughly vet Palin before offering her the VP spot, and that "top aides were vague on Monday about how and when [McCain] had learned of the pregnancy, and from whom." If Palin was trying to hide Bristol’s pregnancy, who knows what other shady business she has hiding in the bushes. In addition, McCain’s mere cursory vetting of Palin shows that his decision-making on important things is incredibly rash. Do we really want a man in charge of our military who is prone to making such knee jerk choices?
It seems that Obama has already started using this pregnancy to his advantage without explicitly naming Bristol. According to Politico, Obama is already running radio ads hitting McCain on abortion rights. But! At the end of the day, I think Democrats should not use Bristol Palin directly in any way, shape or form, and not because they should be above it, but because it detracts from the real issue at hand: the fact that Palin is entirely inexperienced and has barely any defined stances on any issue. Bristol and baby Trig are just smokescreens. At the end of the day, it will be far more satisfying and fruitful to attack Palin on her entirely wobbly platform than the productiveness of her womb.
Earlier today, Jessica added this post, which I found thought provoking.
It’s been about 48 hours since Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was announced, and pundits of all stripes have weighed in on the significance of a single, underage, fertile female. In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy writes, "We are ambivalent about what to do once a girl becomes pregnant. But once that choice is made — and it is a personal choice — what the girl needs most is love and support. If the public can’t offer that to Bristol, the least we can do is leave her alone." No, Courtland. The least the public can do is take Bristol’s mother to task for not supporting teen pregnancies that occur outside her immediate family.
The WaPo is reporting that, as Governor of Alaska, Palin slashed funding for a program that benefited teen moms.According to the WaPo, "Palin reduced funding for Covenant House Alaska by more than 20 percent, cutting funds from $5 million to $3.9 million. Covenant House is a mix of programs and shelters for troubled youths, including Passage House, which is a transitional home for teenage mothers…[where, according to Passage House’s website] ‘young mothers a place to live with their babies for up to eighteen months while they gain the necessary skills and resources to change their lives.’"
And since we’re all on board with not prying into the circumstance of Bristol as an individual, let’s take a look at the fate that lies ahead for most other teen mothers, shall we? Linda Hirshman, writing on Slate’s XX Factor blog, runs through what the average American teen mom experiences, and honestly, it’s bleak. "Even controlling for social and economic backgrounds, only 40 percent of teenage girls who bear children before age 18 go on to graduate from high school, compared with the 75 percent of teens who do not give birth until ages 20 or 21" Hirshman notes. "Overall, teenage mothers—and their children—are also far more likely to live in poverty than females who don’t give birth until after age 20. Two-thirds of the families begun by a young unmarried mother are poor. These families are more likely to be on welfare and to require publicly provided health care." And we know what Palin thinks about publicly provided health care: She thinks it shouldn’t exist!
Even Seventeen editor Ann Shoket has something to say about Bristol’s pregnancy and what it means for the American teen. "No matter how you feel about her politics, Sarah Palin is a shining example of the potential and power of women," Shoket notes in the Huffington Post today. "And in one hot moment with her boyfriend, her daughter gave away her power to make the decisions about how she wanted her future to play out."
Pretty harsh words coming from the editor of a usually soft and fluffy teen mag. And here’s the thing. Individually, Bristol Palin will be fine. But despite what her mother’s campaign would have you believe, the Palins are not regular folk. They are a gubernatorial family with the resources and the connections to help support a teen pregnancy. Obviously, a teen pregnancy is not the end of the world, nor is it anything to be ashamed of. However, it is something that should be prevented as much as possible, and considering Palin’s stance on abortion, it seems she’s only concerned about the individual pregnancy of her daughter and not the pregnancies of our nation’s daughters. Linda Hirshman says it better than I can: "For the millions of women each year who do not want to make that choice, and for the parents who do not want that fate for their daughters, the cruelty of the Republican position on abortion rights is now graphically laid bare."
What do you think?