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]