Monday, September 01, 2008

Pregnant In The Public Eye: Sarah Palin and Her Political Ramifactions

A few people have asked me, as a feminist, if I will vote for John McCain, because he has picked a woman, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, to be his running mate. The answer to that question is a resounding "No." No, I will not vote for a candidate simply because she is a woman. I am an educated voter, and I know that I disagree with Gov. Palin on more than one issue, and therefore, I will vote with my brain, and not with my ovaries.

With that out of the way, we can move on to the scandalous news that Palin, a pro-life, pro-family values, mother of five, must now cope with the controversy of her seventeen year old daughter's pregnancy. Apparently this news was revealed in part to squelch rumors that Palin's youngest infant was actually her daughter's child:

The rumor started circulating on political blogs just hours after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's veep candidacy had been announced: that her four-month-old with Down Syndrome, Trig, was actually the child of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol. Partisans and gossip mavens emailed each other the "clues": a supposed “baby bump” in photographs, Bristol's holding baby Trig at her mother's first appearance with John McCain and a supposed five-month absence from Wasilla High School (her parents told school administrators that it was a case of mononucleosis). The rumor had apparently circulated among Alaskans for months but picked up speed Friday when a contributor to the Daily Kos, a heavily-trafficked liberal-leaning blog, posted an entry on the subject, asking whether the blog should be investigating the rumors of Bristol being Trig's parent.

When Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign came out with a statement Monday morning refuting the rumors, they broke some startling news of their own: that Bristol is currently five months pregnant. "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We are proud of if Bristol's decision to have her baby, and even prouder to become grandparents," wrote Palin and her husband, Todd. The McCain campaign claims to have been aware of the pregnancy when Palin was selected as a running mate. Obama declined to comment on the issue, telling reporters at a campaign stop in Michigan that "people's families are off limits and people's children are especially off limits." But the blogosphere lit up again; Kos himself (a NEWSWEEK contributor) used the news as an opportunity to inveigh against abstinence education; Washington, D.C.-based Wonkette drew comparisons to the John Edwards affair, while a handful of blogs on motherhood hashed out how much Palin's approach to parenting might have figured in her daughter's pregnancy.

I have two reactions to this story. The first, as I have with any scandal in a candidate's private life, is to simply drop the subject. Palin's daughter is not running for office, she did not ask to have her private business flashed all over the national news, and it should be addressed by the family rather than the media. That said, I want to examine the different threads of this story.

Sarah Palin is definitely pro-life, and she will be supporting her daughter in keeping the baby when it is born. Most sources view her dedication to keeping a fetus alive as best on display in her decision to carry a pregnancy to term when it was known that the child would be born with Down's syndrome. For the Right, this could be an excellent opportunity to show what a devoted anti-choicer their VP candidate is. Her young daughter is pregnant and she will support her. Like any follower of Right Wing Family Values, she is making sure that her daughter marries the father. In this light, the pregnancy is more of a boost for Palin as a candidate for the Right than anything else.

And yet, Palin is a staunch abstinence-only sex education supporter. So one is left to wonder what sort of sex education was given to Palin's daughter. If it was abstinence-only sex education, the younger Palin was not taught about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, or how to protect herself against STDs. Statistically, teenagers given only abstinence-only sex education are more likely not to use condoms or contraceptives when they do engage in sexual activity, increasing the risk of pregnancy and disease. While we don't know the details of the pregnancy (and we shouldn't, that is absolutely no one's business but her own), from the outside, what happened here fits the trend of teenagers who are not given access to accurate information. Abstinence-only programs not only do not explain how to use a condom, but they also tell teens that condoms don't work. From CBS' 60 Minutes, with interviewer Ed Bradley:
Denny Pattyn, a Christian youth minister, founded Silver Ring Thing in 1996. "After three-and-a-half hours of giving them our best shot [on stage], 75 percent become convinced and put on the ring," says Pattyn. "Our goal actually is to create a culture shift in America. We want to see the concept of abstinence be the norm rather than the exception."

Pattyn doesn’t just preach the virtues of sexual abstinence. His show is full of negative messages about condoms – messages warning that condoms won’t protect kids from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

"We spoke with some of the kids after the show in Fort Myers and they said that going into the program they thought that condoms did work, but your show convinced them that they didn’t," says Bradley to Pattyn.

"Right. Well, that’s good because we believe that condoms aren’t the answer," says Pattyn.

"You’re telling kids not to have sex. But some kids are going to have sex," says Bradley. "What do you tell those kids. You tell them not to wear a condom?"

"What I would say is: If you choose to use a condom, don’t think you’re getting the protection you think you’re getting," says Pattyn.

"A kid’s part of your program, and he comes to you and says, 'You know, I’m going to have sex. I’ve reached a point and I’m going to do this. Should I use a condom?' What do you say?" asks Bradley.

"My own daughter, my 16-year-old daughter, tells me she’s going to be sexually active. I would not tell her to use a condom," says Pattyn. "I don't think it'll protect her. It won’t protect her heart. It won’t protect her emotional life. And it’s not going to protect her. I don’t want her to get out there and think that she’s going to be protected using a condom."

But wouldn't his daughter be more protected with a condom than without? "Not long term," says Pattyn.
But teens don't stick with abstinence for long. Those who take "virginity pledges" or wear "promise rings," or otherwise swear to not have pre-marital sex may hold out a little longer than than their non-pledged counterparts, but they often don't make it to the altar. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, of the 20,000 adolescents tracked over a seven year period, 4,000 had taken a vow to remain a virgin. By the end of the study, 70% of the abstinence pledgers had engaged in sex. Additionally, the study found that pledgers were much more likely to engage in oral or anal sex, which both encourage high rate of disease transmission. Will Palin continue to support abstinence-only education in the face of teenage, pre-marital pregnancy within her own household?

Next on the agenda is how this event tempers public opinion on Palin's parenting skills. While John McCain can have dalliances and not be overrun with morally outraged constituents, Palin is a woman, and as such, her role as a mother is going to dominate the conversation about her capabilities. Political men, particularly conservative political men, serve two roles as father: the breadwinner and the disciplinarian. He is the example for the family, but does not engage with the family as an active parent. These conservatives are the throwbacks, to the imaginary Golden Age of America, where Dad went to the office and Mother stayed home and raised the children. Any woman in politics will be hamstrung by her private role as a mother, or conversely, if she has chosen not to have children, she will be judged as a lesser woman because she is not a mother. Palin should rank high in conservative opinion because she has five children, and therefore has not shirked her "duty" to be a mother. But her daughter's pregnancy suddenly begs the question, "Did Palin's career keep her from being an active mother?" People are going to question if she could have done more to prevent her daughter from having pre-marital sex. And in light of this, she will be found wanting as a mother, which will impact how the country views her. For example:

“How is this really going to work?” said Karen Shopoff Rooff, an independent voter, personal trainer and mother of two in Austin, Tex. “I don’t care whether she’s the mother or the father; it’s a lot to handle,” she said, adding that Ms. Palin’s lack of national experience would only make her road more difficult.

“When I first heard about Palin, I was impressed,” said Pamela Moore, a mother of two from Birmingham, Ala. But upon reading that Ms. Palin’s special-needs child was three days old when she went back to work, Ms. Moore began questioning the governor’s judgment. Partly as a result, she plans to vote for Senator Barack Obama.

If a woman wants to go back to work after having a baby, and there is adequate care provided by a father, a nanny, a relative, a friend, there should be no issue. But you can see here, there are people who are going to doubt her ability to be an effective politician based on her parenting choices. People are going to judge her on her personal choices, on her home life, on her gender. If Palin were a man, her daughter's pregnancy would be much less important, because fathers are not as responsible for their children as are mothers.

I have already said that I am not voting for Sarah Palin because I will not vote for John McCain. But she is a pioneer for women in politics, and I am not going to ignore her nomination. I will be watching to see how the public reacts to her choices, her image, her campaign. Whatever she does, she is paving the way for more women to reach upper level political nominations.

And lastly, I repeat that this is her personal business. The Republicans began the issue of making the personal public and political in the 1990s, because it was a convenient tool to use against Democratic candidates. Sadly, in this case, it appears their mud-slinging tactics are going to come back to haunt them.

7 responses:

Anonymous said...

It sort of offends me that this was his female choice. If his goal was to "placate" the Hillary Clinton supporters who feel they can't support Obama, this is an outright slap in the face because this woman is simply nowhere near the woman that Hillary is, politically speaking.

And honestly I agree that while I don't give a fig if her daughter is pregnant, I abhor a hypocrite and this woman has living breathing proof right under her own roof that abstinence only sex education does not work, and yet, she still won't acknowledge that it does not work.

Rick said...

Why do people internalize terminology designed to frame bad ideas in a positive light? You say, "Sarah Palin is definitely pro-life." She most certainly is not pro-life. She's anti-choice as far as abortion goes, and apparently anti-informed choice when it comes to sex. She probably supports the death penalty, and opposes life-affirming polices that lift human beings out of poverty. She belongs to a political party that openly endorses unprovoked, preemptive warfare. Indeed, if Sarah Palin is pro-life, John McCain is a spring chicken. Just say, "Sarah Palin is adamantly against legalized abortion."

Re Hillary, I don't see why all these comparisons are being drawn. Hillary may not be that similar to Palin, but she's quite similar to McCain. If anything, Hillary is to the right of McCain except on healthcare, foreign policy, and abortion.

KEHutchinson said...

Excellent point, Rick, regarding the "pro-life" label. I did later refer to her as anti-choice, which is my preferable term for those who call themselves "pro-life."

As for comparisons, it is impossible to avoid those; there are so few well-known women in politics, they are all considered the same because they all have ovaries.

newcommonsense said...

Excellent article, you bring up many great points. I like your style and will add you to my blogroll.

Kilroy_60 said...

Clearly, Pahlin was chosen to pursue the voters who supported Clinton. She made the perfectly clear herself the day McCain announced her.

What's interesting about her daughter being pregnant is that Pahlin is for abstinence and against sex education in schools. Her daughter's pregnancy, better than anything, reflects a failure of her policies.

Any woman who doesn't recognize that their reproductive freedoms will be infringed upon if the Republicans take control is clearly out of touch.

The future of the Supreme Court rests with the next President. There are likely to be three new Justices appointed during the next term.

The good future of the United States depends on the election of Barack Obama.

That said, I'm quite impressed with your blog. If you're so inclined to do a link exchange let me know.

Kilroy_60 said...

Forgot to mention, I reviewed your blog in StumbleUpon. I hope it serves you well.

mice said...

If your friends are asking you if you will vote for McCain I may suggest that they don't know you as well as I do.

That isn't even a question.

Palin may be a woman but as donna mentioned she isn't anything remotely like Hillary. If McCain thinks she is a stand-in for Hillary he is misguided. But I don't really think that is why she was picked.

I suspect she was fast tracked for her personalization of the Pro Life/ Anti Choice stance. Though I think she has become a liability in recent days because of her crazy talk and weird attempts to abuse the little power she has as an Alaskan representative. Sadly, McCain seems very reasonable and thought out by comparison. Perhaps that's the real reason she was picked.

My biggest concearn with her though is she seems more than just a little nuts and if she were second in command and McCain croaks we could have a real problem.

No, definitely not because she is a woman, but because she is a nut.

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