Why Bristol’s Pregnancy Matters
By Joe Conason
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).
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