Bristol Palin, Mary Cheney and the Limits of Family Privacy

Debra Haffner

The John McCain campaign says this is a just a private family matter. Sen. Barack Obama says candidates' families, especially children, are off limits. But when family matters relate directly to policy matters, they are fair for discussion.

The John McCain campaign says this is a just a private family
matter. Sen. Barack Obama says candidates’ families, especially
children, are off limits. But when family matters relate directly to
policy matters, they are fair for discussion.

Obviously, I am referring to the media coverage surrounding Alaska
Gov. Sarah Palin, the presumptive Republican vice presidential
candidate, and her pregnant, 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. Gov.
Palin’s family is asking for privacy, yet the policies of Palin’s party
do not protect the rights of American women to making their own private
decisions about unintended pregnancies.

The situation raises legitimate questions about Gov. Palin’s
positions on sexuality education, teenage pregnancy and reproductive
choice. Americans have every right, and American media the
responsibility, to explore those questions without exploiting the child
involved. After all, Gov. Palin had no hesitancy sharing the details of
her son Track’s entering the army, or her personal decisions about her
infant, as examples of her commitments to family. How could she expect
that her daughter’s decisions wouldn’t be put into play?

According to MSNBC, Gov. Palin has said that keeping the baby was
her daughter’s own decision. Really? In 2006, Gov. Palin said that she
would not support abortion even in the case of her own daughter
becoming pregnant from rape. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that
there wasn’t much discussion about all of Bristol’s legal options when
she told her parents about her pregnancy.

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I’m also wondering how much talk there was about sexual
limit-setting beyond "just say no" and contraception in the Palin
household. Gov. Palin opposes comprehensive sexuality education, and
supports abstinence-only-until-marriage education. If
abstinence-only-until-marriage doesn’t work in your own home, how can
you expect it to work for the country’s teenagers?

The research, as I’ve written in my books for parents,
is quite clear. In homes where parents talk openly about sexuality,
including their values about premarital sex, contraception and STD
prevention, their children are more likely to delay sexual activity and
to protect themselves if they do have sex. Comprehensive sexuality
education programs have a far better record
of helping young people abstain and protect themselves than
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Perhaps Gov. Palin will now reconsider her (and Sen. McCain’s) positions on teenage pregnancy prevention.

"Family privacy" only goes so far. The Clintons were famously
protective of their daughter Chelsea’s privacy during their years in
the White House, and admirably so. Yet it was a legitimate issue for
public discussion in 1993 when the Clintons, after campaigning for
strong public schools, chose to send their daughter to a private school instead.

Then there was Mary Cheney in 2004. Cheney, no child, nevertheless
sheltered behind her parents’ indignation when John Kerry raised the
question of how the Bush-Cheney ticket’s opposition to lesbian and gay
civil rights would affect the vice president’s own daughter. Rather
than address the question, Cheney and wife Lynne excoriated Kerry
for violating their family’s privacy. Lesbian and gay Americans never
got a fair hearing after that. We must not let that happen this time.

My organization
recently wrote to both campaigns, urging them to support comprehensive,
age-appropriate sexuality education; access to affordable sexual health
and reproductive services, including abortion and adoption services;
and full equality, including civil marriage, for lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender Americans. The situation in Gov. Palin’s family must
not be allowed to shroud these issues. If anything, it makes addressing
them even more urgent.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post.

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