The Elephant in the Room

You have to feel sorry for Bristol Palin. Because of her mother's place on the Republican ticket, the biggest challenges of Bristol's life thus far -- becoming a parent and a wife before she has even graduated high school -- will now play out on the national stage, opening her up to the judgments of hundreds of millions of gossipy Americans, not to mention election-watchers across the globe. Barack Obama was right to react with disgust Monday when asked if his campaign would make an issue out of Bristol's pregnancy. Everyone recognizes that Bristol doesn't deserve that.

At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul Monday, outside of a Lifetime Television event honoring young women leaders, a Lifetime staffer breathlessly relayed the story to GOP Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. "So she's keeping the baby. And she's getting married to her boyfriend. And apparently the McCain people knew." The congresswoman furrowed her brow.

"Wow," McMorris Rodgers replied, taking it all in. "Oh my." She paused. "Politically, I think it would be fine. Personally, I think it would be draining."

In conservative circles, the pregnancy news is more than just fine -- politically, it is playing like a dream among Republican delegates in St. Paul. The idea that the Christian right would have judged Sarah Palin a failure in imparting proper values to her sexually active daughter is silly, a typical liberal misreading of contemporary conservative ideology. Though the religious right promotes abstinence-only sex education, vows of chastity, and dances at which prepubescent girls pledge their virginity to dad, conservatives do live in 21st-century America, just like the rest of us. They know teen sex happens. They just also happen to believe, against all common sense, that it can be eradicated.

The truth is, conservatives are more familiar with teen parenthood than are secular liberals. On the whole, red states have higher teen pregnancy and birth rates than blue states. In Texas, the state with the highest teen birth rate, 63 out of every 1,000 young women aged 15 to 19 has had a baby. California has the lowest teen birth rate; only 39 of every 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls there have carried a pregnancy to term. Alaska, where Bristol Palin grew up, has a typical teen birth rate of about 42.

Here at the convention, self-described family-values conservatives say they are even more thrilled with Sarah Palin since they learned her daughter is pregnant, marrying, and will keep the child. They are convinced that not only is the Alaska governor a paragon of the pro-life movement, unafraid to live out her values in the public eye, but that she is the very epitome of conservative professional motherhood, a woman who pursued her career without limiting her family size (five kids!), teaching her offspring about the sacredness of pregnancy along the way.

Christine Potocki, a GOP activist from upstate New York, says folks from her area have been energized by the addition of Palin to the ticket and won't be distracted by the news of Bristol's pregnancy. "I think it fits right into who Sarah Palin is," Potocki said, "and I think people will relate." Potocki's own husband, a convention delegate, has a son from a previous relationship who was conceived out of wedlock. "My husband is pro-life because when he was 19 years old, he found himself in the same situation and made the decision to have a family," Potocki confides. "It speaks to the importance of keeping families intact and supporting those who have a choice to make, and they choose life."

The underlying message is that pregnancy is a gift you should never turn down -- even when it's unexpected, even when you are 17, even when you haven't had the chance to get an education, or a job, or learn to live as an adult away from your parents. (And even if you're the victim of domestic violence or have been raped.) In other words, choice, schmoice.

Grace Woodson, a senior at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia, is attending the convention with a group of classmates and explained that Christian conservatives won't judge Sarah Palin or her family for Bristol's sexual activity. "Everyone is normal and I think they'll realize [hard times are] a normal part of life, no matter if you're conservative or a Democrat," Woodson said. But like all the conservative women I interviewed, Woodson completely avoided the topic of contraception. "If anything, the way she's dealing with it is by respecting her daughter and respecting her daughter's unborn baby."

Obviously, many Americans are shuddering at the thought of parents encouraging their 17-year-old to become a mother and are wondering whether Bristol got a stern talking to about birth control, or if she considered abortion at all. In March, Obama, himself the son of a teen mom, was excoriated by the right when he said, in support of comprehensive sex ed, "Look, I got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with an STD at age 16, so it doesn't make sense to not give them information."

The outrage spurred by the "punishment" language was completely predictable, and evidence of just how wide the cultural chasm remains between conservatives and liberals in America. Amid a failing economy and a foreign war, nothing gets people's blood boiling quite like discussions of sex and abortion. They are still some of the most animating issues in American political life.

Like many conservatives, Jo Howard, a convention delegate from the Houston area, sees Bristol's pregnancy as an argument for abstinence-only education. That is in spite of the fact that Howard's own state teaches abstinence-only in every public school, yet boasts the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate and highest teen birth rate in the nation. "The more we talk about sex, the more kids want to do it," Howard argues. "What you're going to see on the Democratic side is that they're going to push sex education. I think sex education is the problem, and they see it as the solution. These two parties are just totally, totally opposite as far as the issues are concerned. And I think this pregnancy highlights the differences in the two parties."

That it does. If there's any larger societal benefit to Bristol Palin becoming the new face of American teen pregnancy, it might be that her story, alongside that of Britney Spears' kid sister, Jamie Lynn, cuts into stereotypes of all teen moms being black or Latina, or coming from poor families. And if Bistol, with support from her parents, is able to raise her child, make her marriage work, and still get a college education and begin a career, she might even be able to prove to many skeptics that teen pregnancy does not have to leave a young woman's life in ruins.

It is unfortunate, though, that this normal American teen will have her life choices and outcomes placed under a microscope. One wonders, once again, exactly what John McCain was thinking when he named Sarah Palin his running mate. If McCain wanted to turn this election into a debate over divisive cultural issues, though, it seems he made a very savvy move.

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