Palin, Pregnancy, and Principles

First published at on September 5, 2008

I admit it: I was fascinated by the announcement that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

It’s no surprise that teenagers have sex—even evangelical Christian teenagers, and especially very good looking ones, in Alaska, where there’s not much to do but hunting and fishing and…well, you know.

And it’s certainly no surprise that sex makes babies.

But when a conservative politician who advocates abstinence education has a very public failure of abstinence in her own family, revealed just a few days after she’s announced as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, it’s bound to get people talking.

If nothing else, the social and political contours are interesting. Right-wingers admire Palin’s principles, but some wish she would put aside her political ambitions to tend to her family. Left-wingers reject this idea as anti-feminist, but they also reject Palin’s politics.

Let me make two things very clear.

First, Bristol Palin is not running for office; Sarah Palin is. Bristol Palin, like all expectant mothers, should be wished well—especially since she finds herself pregnant during the frenzy and scrutiny of her mother’s vice-presidential campaign. She deserves our compassion, as does her new fiancé.

Second, Sarah Palin is no hypocrite—as some uncharitable commentators have suggested—for embracing her yet-unwed pregnant daughter.

There’s no inconsistency in believing both that we should teach abstinence until marriage and that we should support those children who become pregnant anyway. There’s no hypocrisy in striving for an ideal that you and your loved ones occasionally fall short of. You don’t stop endorsing speed limits just because you (or your kids) sometimes lose track of the speedometer.

The fact is, Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education deserves criticism on its own merits. Her family’s behavior has nothing to do with it, aside from adding anecdotes to the statistics suggesting that “abstinence only” doesn’t achieve what its proponents hope and claim.

For example, abstinence advocates are fond of citing studies by Yale’s Hannah Brückner and Columbia’s Peter Bearman, who show that adolescents who take abstinence pledges generally delay sex about eighteen months longer than those who don’t. What the advocates don’t mention is the researchers’ finding that only 12% of these adolescents keep their pledges, and that when they do have sex, they are far less likely to use protection.

In other words, the failure rate of condoms pales by comparison to the failure rate of abstinence pledges—88%, if you believe Brückner and Bearman.

But it’s not Sarah Palin’s rejection of comprehensive sex education that’s bugging me here. What’s bugging me is the right-wing reaction, which for the most part boils down to “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

That, of course, is the proper reaction.

But it stands in sharp contrast to their usual reaction to gay kids, their rhetoric about “Love in Action” and “Love Win[ning] Out” notwithstanding.

For example, contrast the right-wing reaction to Palin’s grandchild with their reaction to Dick Cheney’s grandchild Samuel—son of his lesbian daughter Mary. At the time, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America announced that Mary’s pregnancy “repudiates traditional values and sets an appalling example for young people at a time when father absence is the most pressing social problem facing the nation.” She was hardly alone in such denunciations.

Now here’s the same Crouse on Palin: “We are confident that she and her family will handle this unexpected situation with grace and love. We appreciate the fact that the Palins…are providing loving support to the teenager and her boyfriend.”

There are differences in the two cases to be sure. Bristol plans to marry the father, and thus will provide the baby with a “traditional” family (in one sense); Mary won’t. Bristol’s pregnancy was probably accidental, whereas Mary’s was certainly deliberate.

On the other hand, Mary’s child arrives in the home of a mature and stable couple; Bristol’s in the home of a young and hastily formed one.

But the sharpest difference in the cases is the contrast in right-wingers’ compassion. It’s the difference in empathy, a trait that’s at the core of the Golden Rule.

They tell heterosexuals: abstinence until marriage—and if you fail, we forgive you. For gays, it’s abstinence forever—and if you fail, we denounce you.

For heterosexuals, “Nobody’s perfect, life happens, but you love and support your children and grandchildren.”

For gays, not so much.