September 01, 2008

On Teen Mothers

As the whole world knows by now, Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin's 17 year old daughter is pregnant. Evidently she's planning on taking the pregnancy to term and marrying the father. The cynic in me rolls his eyes when considering the chances of a marriage between 17 year olds working out long term, but that's beside the point.

The issue that's come up for Democrats is how to treat this in the campaign. Hilzoy asserts that Palin's child should be off the table, but it's unclear to me what that really means. For instance, Hilzoy states that we shouldn't use this as an example showing that abstinence-only education doesn't work but that it *is* appropriate to discuss how Palin's reaction to this squares with her stated views on abortion.

I just don't see a very bright line distinction there. I mean, we *know* abstinence-only education doesn't work, but Republican's fail to acknowledge that fact based on studies. Just bringing up the topic of abstinence-only education at this point is going to invoke Palin's daughter, so is the whole topic off the table? At some level, this poor girl is going to be in the spotlight no matter what because her mother is running for office. Did the Republicans go overboard with their attacks on Chelsea Clinton? Obviously. Should Democrats do the same thing here? Obviously not. But candidates bring all their baggage with them when they opt to step into the public eye and while there are certain boundaries we should respect vis a vis their families, we also have to recognize that the lives of candidates give rise to legitimate questions of policy. It's unfortunate for this young woman that what would probably be embarrassing in the best of situations is now embarrassing on a national scale, but ultimately politicians have to consider that they're exposing their whole family to public scrutiny when they run for office.

Again, this isn't to say that anything should go, but that a whole host of issues are now sure to make people at least think about how it applies to Gov. Palin's family and that we can't simply avoid those topics in an election year. Ultimately we just have to do our best to stay classy and apologize for any difficulty this may cause a young woman who's already in a bad situation.

Edit: Drew has a much welcomed political post on this up. Link.


Unknown said...

I'm on the fence about using the story as a springboard for discussing abstinence-only education. On the one hand, I think there are probably a lot of independent voters out there who are persuadable on this issue, and they're worth persuading. Because it's important.

On the other hand, the real targets of the attack, the right-wing fundamentalists, won't be phased at all. Because the dirty little secret behind all of this is that abstinence-only education isn't supposed to reduce teen pregnancy. It's supposed to encourage marriage. Palin's daughter isn't a symbol of failure to these people, she's a symbol of success.

Ideally, abstinence-only education should induce teens to sublimate their sexual urges and redirect them into getting themselves married as quickly as possible (in order to finally get laid). A teenager who marries her baby-daddy is the second best result.

Unknown said...

Oh, and thanks for the link.

Jenna said...

And we all know what happens when kids that are 18 or 19 years of age get married...they get divorced. So what are the odds of Sarah Palin's daughter getting a divorce within the next five years? I feel bad for this girl.

Also, I am not going to be voting for McCain/Palin, but I sincerely don't think that you can judge a person by what there 17 year old child has done. A parent cannot be there every second of a child's day to tell them what to do. At age 17 most kids can think for themselves and make there own decisions, even if it isn't the best one. As a parent you have to hope that the things you have taught your kids are going to stick. Not all of them do, and thus, some of them get do drugs, some drink before they are 21, and some get pregnant before marriage. It happens, but unless the parent is a total shouldn't be a reflection on them, although it always will.

Noumena said...

I don't see how Bristol Palin's situation can be used to reasonably start a discussion about abstinence-only sex ed (which, unless I missed something, is the only actual issue mentioned in this thread). First, we don't know that Bristol Palin had abstinence-only sex ed. But suppose we did. Second, we still don't know whether this pregnancy is a failure of abstinence-only sex ed. We don't know whether Bristol Palin and her boyfriend used contraception. We don't even know that this pregnancy was unplanned.

Third, particular cases are, in general, a bad place to start a serious policy discussion. This is especially true when, as per points one and two, the particular case may be utterly irrelevant to the policies under discussion. To make informed judgements, we need to rely on good data about, for example, the percentage of teenagers who have abstinence-only sex ed that end up with unwanted pregnancies. The case of one teenage couple is not good data.

MosBen said...

I don't have time for a full response, but a particular instance is definitely not good data, but there's no reason it can't be a starting place for political discussions.

We know Sarah Palin supports abstinence-only education. Why shouldn't we ask her what she taught her daughter and if she may reconsider her positions now. The McCain campaign has gone to great lengths to assert that Bristol made the *choice* to keep the baby, but both McCain and Palin support policies to take choice away from women in Bristol Palin's position. Why are they intent that she should have a choice but that others shouldn't?

My point isn't to narrow the topics exclusively to one topic or another, my point was that politics is more complex than "families are off limits." We should try our best to not embroil Bristol in politics as much as Republicans involved Chelsea Clinton, but politicians bring their families with them into the spotlight so their personal lives are going to give rise, to some degree, to public discussions of policy.

MosBen said...

Ok, the girlfriend is in bed and I've got the computer back!

Ok, to reiterate, my point isn't that we should go after Bristol, or that this pregnancy proves anything specific about any policies, including abstinence only. My point is that saying "Hey, the family of a politician is off limits for public discussion" is problematic. I've long thought that abstinence only education was garbage because we've got studies which show that it's garbage. If I bring up that topic now everyone will think of Bristol Palin. Should I avoid the discussion entirely? What if *I'm* thinking about Bristol Palin when I bring it up because it's got me thinking about it? Are we allowed to ask Gov. Palin about abstinence only education? Are we allowed to ask her if her position has changed recently?

As much as I'd like to be able to give Bristol Palin some kind of magic device to keep her out of the public spotlight it's simply not that easy. What I *do* think is important is that we don't shy away from any topic based on developments in a candidate's family and indeed that topics relating to that family might be politically relevant.

The best we can hope to do, I think, is to not be baldly rude to her family, as Republicans were with Chelsea. I don't think Bristol's pregnancy provides anything like "data" about any subject, but it might lead us to legitimate political discussions.

MosBen said...

Ugh, obviously this post was not written very well because I keep feeling compelled to come explain my points better...

Anyway, I also don't mean to imply that the pregnant daughter issue is a disqualifier at all for Palin, nor do I think this is the most important thing to talk about with either the Republican campaign or Palin's pick. All I meant to say is that we shouldn't shy away from some topics for fear of being accused of being mean to Bristol. Nor should we fail to ask hard questions of Palin on certain topics because those topics are related to events in her family.

Noumena said...

I think you're running several different claims together.
1) People will associate certain policy discussions with Bristol Palin's situation.
2) Certain policy discussions should make explicit reference to Bristol Palin's situation.
3) Bristol Palin's situation can or should be used to start certain policy discussions.

You seem to keep arguing that, because 1 is inevitable, we should accept 2 or even 3. But that's just horribly cynical. And you caricature the arguments against 2 and 3 as concerned with (just) being `mean' or `rude'. But that's just wrong. The arguments are, first, the ones I gave above, that Bristol Palin's situations are properly irrelevant to these discussions, and second, that it's inconsistent for someone who's pro-choice when it comes to pregnancy and abortion to go around pointing fingers and second-guessing a young woman's choice to carry a pregnancy to term.

Noumena said...

And let's not forget that the conversation being had right now isn't even close to a policy conversation. It's OMG HOT TEENAGE SEX SCANDALXXX!!1!

MosBen said...

Well, as with so many issues like this the "debate" can hardly be characterized in the singular. I've certainly read web sites that are chiefly concerned with, as you say, "OMG HOT TEENAGE SEX SCANDALXXX!!1!" but I don't think that's ubiquitous and definitely not what I've heard on the major sites I visit or on the networks.

And again, I think it's fairly clear at this point that the original post wasn't thought out very well, so let's agree to take these as my points:

1. Politician's families should be left out of public scrutiny as far as is possible.

2. In circumstances where events in a candidate's private life or the lives of their families give rise to legitimate public debate, a degree of decorum and respect for the privacy of the politician's family should be respected. This should not, however, mean that the subject should be avoided.

What bothers me is that there's a knee jerk reaction of "Oh, the family's off limits!" but no definition of what that means. Should Bristol Palin's name never be mentioned? Should we avoid the subject of abortion because it will inevitably bring Bristol Palin to mind to many people?

My ultimate point is only that politics, particularly the politics of politician's families is more complex than just "fair game" or "off limits." Politicians invoke their families when it's politically beneficial but cry foul when it's politically damaging. They put them in the spotlight and then push them out. It's more complicated than just about everybody seems to be recognizing and it's maddening to me.