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Why Bristol's Baby Matters

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Families deserve privacy about family matters, but families that want absolute privacy should stay out of politics. Sooner or later someone would have noticed the pregnancy of Bristol Palin, 17-year-old daughter of John McCain's vice-presidential pick, especially since everyone in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, seemed to know already.

The question that remains is what, if anything, her plight may portend for the rest of us.

With all due respect to this young woman, her future husband and the rest of the family -- and best wishes to all of them for a successful birth -- let us first stop pretending that this is good news. There are excellent reasons why we discourage teenage pregnancy and motherhood, and none of them have disappeared simply because the Republicans are about to put Sarah Palin on their ticket.

Adolescents are rarely prepared to take on the challenges of raising a child. Often they drop out of school as a result, and usually become dependent on their own parents for support (which may be complicated for a family whose mom is running for vice president). Pregnancies in adolescence are high-risk, and the babies born to teenage mothers tend to have more illnesses during their first year of life. Teenage marriages -- whether or not they occur because of an unplanned pregnancy -- have a tendency to work out poorly, too. ("I don't want to have kids," noted Bristol Palin's prospective husband Levi Johnston, 18, on his MySpace page, according to the New York Post, and at his age, why would he?)

But such is life in the red states, where sensible sex education and availability of contraceptives are discouraged for adolescents, even though they are just as sexually active as teenagers everywhere else. Despite the supposed religious purity of the evangelical right-wingers who today regard themselves as the base of the Republican Party, rates of teenage pregnancy and divorce tend to be higher in their domain than elsewhere in America. To the extent that their values would dominate for another four years of Republican rule, those pathologies can be expected to prevail. During the past four years of the Bush administration, teen pregnancies have increased for the first time since 1990, when they began a 14-year decline.

That is why the story of Bristol Palin raises a serious public policy issue. If we have acquired too much information about her, we may not yet have learned quite enough about her mother (just like those hapless vetters of her candidacy in the McCain campaign).

It seems fair to assume, however, that Sarah Palin's enthusiasm for "abstinence-only" sex education, which is shared by Sen. McCain, helped to cause her daughter's misfortune. As a politician who insists on lecturing adolescents to abstain without teaching them about contraception, she may never have informed Bristol how to protect herself from an unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Her views on reproductive rights -- including opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest -- are too extreme even for her running mate.

The Alaska governor probably assumed that her daughter -- no doubt a regular churchgoer like the rest of the family -- was saving herself for marriage according to religious doctrine. Meanwhile, daughter Bristol probably understood that Mom, loving but ambitious and deeply dogmatic, was the last person she dared to ask for advice on birth control.

Surely Sarah and Todd Palin as well as their church gave Bristol a clear message that she should avoid premarital sex. But what we know now is abstinence-only education, whether at school or in the home, fails at least as often as it succeeds. The religious morality of the evangelical right, preaching the return of the sexual mores of decades ago, is no more likely to succeed. If we are to protect young men and women against the consequences of their desire -- and reduce the rate of abortion, which people like the Palins supposedly abhor -- then we ought to be making comprehensive sex education and contraceptives available to everyone.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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