Bristol Palin to Teens: Don’t Get Pregnant

Jodi Jacobson

A statement today by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin celebrated the birth of her first grandchild, baby boy Tripp.  In the same statement, Bristol Palin tells teens, in effect, don't do as I do.  But neither take on the abstinence-only debate straight on.

On December 27th, 2008 Bristol Palin, daughter of Alaska Governor and former Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin gave birth to a healthy baby boy.  Today, Bristol, who is 18 years old and just shy of achieving her high school diploma, joined her mother in a statement on the birth of her first child, Governor Palin’s first grandchild.

Governor Palin, obviously elated with the safe delivery of her grandchild and the health of her daughter, stated;

We are over the moon with the arrival of this healthy, beautiful baby.

And, she continued:

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The road ahead for this young couple will not be easy, but nothing
worthwhile is ever easy. Bristol and Levi are committed to accomplish
what millions of other young parents have accomplished, to provide a
loving and secure environment for their child. They are both hard
workers, they’re very strong, and have faith they’ve made the right
decision in setting aside their own interests to make this child their
highest priority.

The operative word here is "decision."  Bristol and Levi, along with their families, made a decision that was right for them.  And the fact that they have this choice is instructive on many levels.

Bristol Palin said she "obviously discourages" teen pregnancy and knows
that plans she previously made for herself will now forever be changed.

Teenagers need to prevent pregnancy to begin with – this isn’t ideal.
But I’m fortunate to have a supportive family which is dealing with
this together. Tripp is so perfectly precious; we love him with all our
hearts. I can’t imagine life without him now.

In many ways, Bristol Palin is incredibly fortunate.  She grew up in the United States, where the choice still exists for all people, at least in theory, to practice safer sex, and where the choice still exists, at least in theory for all women, whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term.  She is part of a family with the means to ensure she had access to good pre- and post-natal care, and safe delivery services.  And she also has strong family support in raising her child while finishing school and going on to the next steps in her life.  As she underscored in her own words, her original life plans may be forever changed, but she is exercising choices that are hers to make, according to her own situation, needs, and beliefs.  I have no doubt that Bristol and Levi have the same dreams for their child as I do for mine or as any parent would.

Yet the situation is also full of irony.  Bristol grew up in a family which espoused abstinence-only policies, not just as a familial choice, but also a state- and national strategy.  During the Presidential campaign, MSNBC reported that in response to an Eagle Forum questionnaire during her gubernatorial race, Sarah Palin supported abstinence-only sex education.

Eagle Forum: Will you support funding for
abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit
sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of
contraceptives in schools?

Palin: Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.

(The report, quoting campaign aides, shows that Presidential candidate McCain held the same views).

Sarah Palin, the VP candidate, was unequivocally anti-choice when it came to women’s rights to determine whether and when to have children.  As Gloria Steinem wrote in September in the Los Angeles Times:

[Palin] opposes gun control but supports government control of women’s
wombs; she opposes stem cell research but approves "abstinence-only"
programs, which increase unwanted births, sexually transmitted diseases
and abortions.  She doesn’t just echo McCain’s pledge to criminalize abortion by
overturning Roe vs. Wade, she says that if one of her daughters were
impregnated by rape or incest, she should bear the child. She not only
opposes reproductive freedom as a human right but implies that it
dictates abortion, without saying that it also protects the right to
have a child.

The "daughter-of-abstinence-only-politician-gets-pregnant" scenario might just be fodder for comedians if not for the stark realities.  The situation is deeply emblematic of what the evidence has long told us about the efficacy of abstinence-only programs: They don’t work. 

Research findings, government policies and funding of abstinence policies have been well-covered on Rewire, including a recent article by Scott summarizing findings of a Johns Hopkins University study on the failure of virginity pledges, a popular aspect of abstinence-only programs.  Extensive coverage of such programs domestically can be found on the websites of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the Guttmacher Institute, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, among other sources. 

Among credible researchers, there simply is no dispute: Well-designed comprehensive programs simultaneously encourage delay in sexual activity and teach adolescents how to practice safer sex thereby preventing both unintended pregnancy and infection.  Abstinence-only programs leave them vulnerable. 

That Bristol and Levi became sexually active, were unprotected and ended up having a child before they planned to do so is not a surprise….it is somewhat predictable given what we already know about abstinence-only in reality.  That they made the choice to have their child and so quickly become adults and parents while also trying to finish high school degrees also is their basic right, and we celebrate the fact that they can exercise these choices.

Indeed, we celebrate the healthy and safe arrival of baby Tripp and wish him, his parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, and his extended family only the very best.

But something in Bristol’s statement implies a different take on the situation….she is telling teens to prevent pregnancy in the first place, and by doing so at least implicitly suggesting that they be able to exercise responsible choices if and when they engage in sexual activity. Maybe Bristol is way ahead of her mom.

So it is fair to ask whether this most recent and very public journey for a young couple has caused Governor Palin, her supporters or other advocates of abstinence-only to reconsider their position?  If we all prize having individuals wait until they are really ready to parent, and make concious decisions about doing so proactively, then this alone is a case for realism in policy and practice. 

There is no immediate answer to this question.  Indeed, nothing in Governor Palin’s own statement either reaffirmed her belief in or challenged abstinence-only programs.

But it is worth asking, if for no other reason than Governor Palin has made clear she intends to remain on the national stage.  And the United States still funds abstinence-only programs domestically and through our global AIDS funding abroad.  Programs that leave people vulnerable and waste taxpayer dollars.

We invite those who continue to support abstinence-only programs to share their thoughts on where this situation places the debate.  The evidence is clear.  The Palin’s story unfolding in the national press puts the data in the context of personal history.  And yet the broader implications of the dichotomy between personal experience and political philosophy remains relatively unexplored.

So we ask this: why, in the real world, does anyone still defy the evidence?  In this real world in which we live, some 600,000 women die annually–and many times that number suffer illness and disablity–from complications of pregnancy and unsafe abortion.  They do not have access to safe delivery services or emergency obstetric care because it is not a high priority to provide them with these services.  In many of the poorest countries of the world women continue to bear a higher number of children than they desire due in large part to lack of choice over childbearing and lack of access to contraception, because it is not a high priority to change these circumstances.  They have decided they lack the means to "provide a
loving and secure environment for their [next] child" and so many risk their own lives in unsafe abortions to end unintended pregnancies.

In the United States, low-income African American and Latina adolescents are more likely to become pregnant than their middle- and upper income peers, and without family support or a substantial economic cushion, face a far bleaker future if they find themselves unintentionally pregnant than do Bristol and Levi. 

In all of these cases, the range of choices available is starkly limited by ideology and political expediency. 

Can we take from the story of Bristol and Levi that it is time to ensure that all people have real choices, and are allowed to exercise them?

Having Governor Palin make a clear statement rethinking her earlier positions–recognizing her daughter’s ability to make choices based on her own needs and the rights of others to make healthy choices based on theirs–would be a welcome way to start this new year.  In fact, she might just go a bit further than where Bristol left off and say: If you have sex, protect yourself.

I know my opinion of Sarah Palin would shift a bit if she said she’d read the evidence and rethought her previous position.

I have no evidence of such a change.  But who knows?  Maybe that transition also is already underway: The link to that page on Eagle Forum Alaska is no longer live.


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