Let’s hear it for Bristol Palin. The pregnant 17-year-old daughter of John McCain’s vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, is going to have her baby and marry her beau, Levi Johnston. That’s a brave move, and she deserves all the support she can get. It looks like she’ll need it. Her 18-year-old husband-to-be describes himself as a "fuckin’ redneck." His MySpace page (which has since been taken down) said he is in a relationship and doesn’t want kids. Bristol’s mom and dad, we are told, are delighted. We know because they issued a statement. "We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents." Good for them. Now they would like us to talk about something else. "We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi’s privacy," they said. Not so fast.
The fact is, Bristol could make the decision to keep the baby only because, in legal terms at least, she had a choice. A choice, as it happens, that her mother wants to criminalize. Contrary to popular wisdom, the decisive issue in Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination was not her gender but her views on abortion. Had she not been antichoice she never would have made it onto the ticket. The principal objection to McCain’s purported favorites for the job–Joseph Lieberman and Tom Ridge–was that they support abortion rights. The woman who would like us to keep her daughter’s pregnancy a private matter is running for office so that she can make the pregnancies of other people’s daughters an affair of the state.
There is precious little to gloat about here. It is depressing how quickly attacks on Palin and her family descend into misogyny, as was the case with Hillary Clinton. Speculation as to how Palin could possibly balance her responsibilities as a mother of five with the vice presidency, or whether her daughter "strayed" because her mother was too preoccupied with work, is inappropriate and offensive. McCain has seven children–two of whom are older than Sarah Palin–and those questions are never asked about him. Bristol Palin is not fair game.
But that does not mean that her pregnancy is not worthy of comment, for two reasons. First, as a public official her mother has embraced positions that would deny others the options her daughter has enjoyed, would deny access to information about preventing unplanned pregnancies and deny support for those in a similar situation. In Alaska, she opposed programs that teach teenagers about contraception and slashed funding for a shelter for teenage mothers. Meanwhile, her running mate has voted to increase funding for abstinence-only education and to terminate the federal family-planning program, and he voted against funding teen-pregnancy-prevention programs. He has also voted to require teenagers seeking birth control at federally funded clinics to obtain parental consent. Unfortunately for Bristol, her mother’s public positions make her personal predicament a teachable moment.
Second, Palin decided to showcase her personal life, and particularly her motherhood, as a centerpiece of her candidacy. McCain introduced her to the country in Dayton, Ohio, as "someone who grew up in a decent, hard-working middle-class family." He went on to say, "I am especially proud to say in the week we celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage, [she is a]
devoted wife and mother of five," as though you should see being married and giving birth to a slew of kids as somehow connected to having the vote. Palin then took time to introduce "four out of five" of her "blessings" (including Bristol) and herself as a "hockey mom" and the "mother of one of those troops" fighting in Iraq.
If she doesn’t want her children in the line of fire, she shouldn’t introduce them to the battlefield or use her parenting as a weapon. That goes for Barack Obama, John McCain and Joe Biden as well.
When news of Bristol’s pregnancy broke, Obama said, "I think people’s families are off limits. I think people’s children are especially off limits. This shouldn’t be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Governor Palin’s performance as governor or her potential performance as a Vice President."
Mostly true and fair enough (one shudders to think what the right wing would make of it if the Obama girls were to find themselves in a similar situation ten years from now). But if family and children are off limits, then do us all a favor and keep them the hell off the stage and away from the microphones. Public office seems to be the only career for which people think it is not only acceptable but necessary to interview the spouse and view the brood for the job. The notion that Americans might elect someone single, let alone gay, to the presidency seems far less likely than the chances of electing a black man or a white woman. And so we are force-fed this hetero-fest with tales of first dates and familial bliss and then asked to look the other way when the facade cracks. If politicians really don’t want the public to examine their families, they should follow a new code: don’t tell, then we won’t have to ask.
In the meantime, the party of abstinence-only programs did not miss a beat as it stepped up to suffocate Bristol in its embrace. After all, she is having the child and getting married. Only the timing is off. "Now she’s a typical American family," Kris Bowen, an alternate delegate from Indiana, told the New York Times, referring to Palin. "On an individual level, every single person is thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that has happened to me or someone I know or I’m afraid it will.’" It is heartening to know that under all of those vile policies there lies some human compassion. But that does not make the policies any less vile or their consequences any less dire. That Bristol’s situation should become national news is unfortunate. She is not the first 17-year-old to have to make this kind of decision. But if her mom has her way, she could be one of the last.