Why Bristol’s Baby Matters
The failure of Republican-backed abstinence-only sex ed
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 McCainâs vice presidential pick, especially since every one in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, already seemed to know.
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 familyâand best
wishes to all of them for a successful birthâlet 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 put Sarah Palin on their
Teen Pregnancies Increased in the Bush Years
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 Palinâs enthusiasm for âabstinence onlyâ sex education, which is shared by Sen. McCain, helped to cause her daughterâs 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 rightsâ including opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incestâare too extreme even for her running mate.
The Alaska governor probably assumed that her daughterâno doubt a regular churchgoer like the rest of the familyâwas 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 that 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 desireâand reduce the rate of abortion, which people like the Palins supposedly abhorâthen we ought to be making comprehensive sex education and contraceptives available to everyone.© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.
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