“We may not agree on abortion,
but surely we can all agree on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies”.
These words, spoken by Barack Obama, took on an ironic meaning yesterday
when it was announced that Bristol Palin, the unmarried teen age daughter
of Sarah Palin, the presumptive Republican candidate for vice president
was five months pregnant.
that we are cautious in using other people’s lives to prove our political
points or in drawing conclusions about why Bristol Palin got pregnant.
We simply do not know if Sarah Palin’s politics caused Bristol Palin’s
pregnancy. Compassion and respect for the dignity of persons demands
that commentary strive to avoid hurting others. But commentary on the
life decisions of those who have chosen to be in the public eye is not
off limits. In fact, it is an essential component of how we learn. We
learn in part from analyzing the decisions others make. Our children
learn from how we explain decisions our leaders make. We learn when
we think about the decisions others make. It is too facile to declare
discourse about the Palin situation off limits and say that whatever
decision a woman makes is ipso facto the right decision. Some decisions
are good and result in health and happiness; others turn out unhappily,
analyzing those choices helps develop policy that is sensitive to facilitating
has the right – and the responsibility – to make her decision about
this pregnancy, but knowing whether it is the right decision is beyond
our capacity to determine. Her parents have the right and the
responsibility to guide her in that decision and those of us who are
pro-choice would hope that she had full information on all the options
available including abortion, not marrying and raising the child herself,
adoption, and marriage and child bearing. We cannot, however, impose
the duty of full disclosure on her parents. We can comment on what we
think is ethical parental behavior and the elements that go into good
decision making about reproduction. The personal is political and reproduction
is a private act with public consequences.
Unwanted pregnancies happen
to teens who had great sex education and those who had none. Sex and
desire are messy, unpredictable and consequences are forgotten in the
heat of passion. They even happen to well educated, sophisticated adults
like Rielle Hunter.
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Obama’s words and approach
to abortion are, however, in sharp contrast to that of Sarah Palin who
describes herself as a “feminist for life” and is a member of the
organization with the same name. I would contend that Obama’s who,
as far as I know, has never called himself a feminist is more in keeping
with feminist theories and values regarding sexuality, gender and reproduction
than Sarah Palin. In focusing on reducing unintended pregnancy rather
than making abortion illegal, Obama reflects the feminist value of providing
women with the choices they want – and not becoming pregnant when
you are not ready to have a child is high on women’s wish lists.
Feminists for Life, on the
other hand, have shown little interest in responding to women’s expressed
needs. “Preconception issues” such as contraception and abstinence
are not their concern. Their mission is to “serve” women who are
“already pregnant” In fact, their legislative program is almost
totally focused on the Elizabeth Cady Stanton bill, a little known measure
that would provide modest funding to colleges for resources to help
pregnant women stay in college.
From a feminist perspective
this approach misses the mark. The women’s health movement spent the
60’s and 70’s working to change cultural and medical values so that
women would be treated as full persons, not as uterine containers for
babies. FFL would have us return to a time in which women’s sexuality
is denied and they are seen only through the lens of motherhood. Sarah
Palin seems to have bought into this model both in her opposition to
comprehensive sexuality education and in her approach to her daughter’s
pregnancy. The solution to an unintended pregnancy is to transform it
into and unintended and perhaps unwise marriage.
For FFL and Palin,
women’s natural role is motherhood; while it may be premature for
that to occur to a high school senior; it is simply the early adoption
of her purpose in life. Likewise women are by nature more peace loving
and self sacrificing; thus to surrender to a pregnancy is what a good
woman does. In this context, one can deny women the right to an abortion
even if they have been raped. Both Palin and FFL argue the standard
anti-abortion line: “you can’t punish the ‘child’ for the sins
of the father”. But you can punish the woman. No real woman
would not sacrifice for the child of her rapist, they say. I am reminded
of the words of John Paul 2 who called himself the “feminist pope”
and sent a letter to the bishops of Bosnia Herzogvenia in which he urged
Muslim women who had been raped by Christian soldiers to turn the rape
into an “act of love” and bear their rapist’s child.
These expectations that women —
and women only — are required to undertake supererogatory acts of extreme
sacrifice has been rejected by main stream feminism and it is only its
re-emergence in FFL and fundamentalist Christianity that enables women
like Palin to call themselves “feminist”.
Serious feminism, developed
in women’s interest rejects such romantic notions and frames women’s
rights as human rights. A core tenet of feminism is the belief that
women are competent moral adults or agents. They are to be trusted to
make moral decisions and have both a legal and moral right to the conditions
that make such decisions possible. Not the state, parents or partners
or doctors can substitute their moral decisions for those of a woman.
Both Sarah Palin and Feminists for Life ignore this value and want to
restrict women’s moral autonomy by making abortion illegal, restricting
access to contraception and to sexuality education.
They are not prepared to trust
women in the one activity that they own – reproduction. In Palin’s
case, a feminist for life can love guns, war, and capital punishment,
but not women.
These are not new feminist
ideas, they are old patriarchal ideas. Palin is not about shattering
the glass ceiling (which was shattered 25 years ago by Geraldine Ferraro)
but shattering women’s lives. The Palin story is fast moving – I suspect
that Sarah Palin will not survive to be the Republican Party’s vice
presidential nominee. The behind the scenes pressure on her to withdraw
in the interest of her family’s privacy is probably intense. It would
be best for women if that pressure prevails.