Long after the GOP delegates leave the Twin Cities, debate will persist over the revelation on the opening day of their convention that the unmarried 17-year-old daughter of their vice-presidential candidate is pregnant.
Many argue vehemently that the pregnancy is a private matter for the candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her daughter Bristol.
But the revelation has stirred passionate debate over a host of very public issues.
One is abstinence-only sex education. Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain, who chose her as his running mate, are staunch advocates for that approach. But it doesn’t work, according to a major scientific study reported last year. The federal government spends $176 million a year on that form of sex education, the Washington Post reported, money that could go to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases in teens nationwide.
Other points of debate range from McCain’s judgment in choosing Palin to family values, attitudes toward teen pregnancy and sensitive questions about women in public office.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, came down emphatically Monday on the side of those who say this pregnancy is a private, family matter.
“I think people’s families are off limits and people’s children are especially off limits,” Obama told reporters Monday, according to the National Journal’s “hotlineblog.”
“This shouldn’t be part of our politics,” Obama continued. “It has no relevance to Governor Palin’s performance as governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18 and, you know, how a family deals with issues and you know teenage children, that shouldn’t be the topic of our politics and I hope that anybody who’s supporting me understands that’s off limits.”
But others say not so fast.
Let’s look at a few of their arguments beginning with the issue of teen pregnancy.
Washington Post columnist Colbert King, an African American, reacted this way:
“A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the problem of teen pregnancy and the tragic impact it has had on so many aspects of life in the nation’s capital. Reader response was heavy and, in some ways, disturbing. While I never used the terms ‘black’ or ‘African American’ in the column, many readers saw the teen pregnancy problem in only racial terms.”
Here is one example of the feedback:
“How long has this ‘problem’ been going on in the black community? Since the dark ages, er, the 60’s, say. From day one they should be held accountable for their behavior…Remove the kid if necessary and establish some kind of homes for them. Better the state rear them instead of the current crop.”
So is it hypocritical for conservatives, who typically oppose public support for teen mothers, to rally behind Palin’s family? King doesn’t say that. He applauds the support that poured forth on Monday for Bristol Palin. In announcing the pregnancy, Sarah Palin said her daughter would marry the baby’s father and “they will have the love and support of our entire family.” Many Republicans and social conservatives quickly rallied behind them saying they had set the right example by not seeking an abortion.
But King called upon the Palins to set a different example by offering the same level of support for poor teens and single mothers who are so often depicted as unfit parents and welfare sponges: “Sarah Palin, husband Todd, and daughter Bristol are well suited to tell the rest of America that there is more to the problem than that.”
McCain’s judgment was questioned even before the revelation. His campaign has said Palin was fully vetted before his surprise choice was announced last week. But the Anchorage Daily News reported this morning that it is hard to find anyone in Alaska who was contacted by McCain’s campaign. From neighbors to leaders of the Alaska Legislature, the story names key people who say they never were contacted. It quotes reports that McCain’s campaign claimed the FBI was involved in the vetting process, but FBI officials have denied that too.
One very touchy area in the questioning of McCain’s judgment – and Palin’s too — is whether she can handle the duties of vice president and still be a proper mother. In addition to the pregnant daughter, Palin has a baby with Down syndrome and three other children. A related question is whether she placed her own ambitions ahead of Bristol’s best interests, knowing that her vulnerable daughter would be thrust into public scrutiny.
The choice of Palin was intended to appeal to women at a time the Democrats had let so many down by rejecting the presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it also is taking McCain’s campaign into territory that is politically unexplored while intimately familiar to millions of women.
“Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try,” the New York Times reported.
“It’s the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition,” the Times said. “But this time the battle lines are drawn inside out, with social conservatives, usually staunch advocates for stay-at-home motherhood, mostly defending her, while some others, including plenty of working mothers, worry that she is taking on too much.”
Even before the pregnancy was revealed, blogs devoted to motherhood were buzzing with that new twist in the longstanding debate. Now, with the revelation, a full nationwide debate is opened.
“Clinton’s recent candidacy was a moment of reckoning for women of her generation, who treated her run as a mirror in which to examine their own lives,” the Times said. “With Ms. Palin’s entry into the field, a younger generation of women have picked up that mirror, using her candidacy to address the question of just how demanding a job a mother with such intense family obligations should tackle.”
In an article headlined “Who Owns Family Values Now?” Ann McFeatters said that this development has pushed “economic issues such as teenage pregnancy, sex education, the cost of day care for working women, health insurance and equal pay, as well as abortion, more fully into the debate.”
While conservatives like Palin and McCain have opposed non-abstinence sex education, teen pregnancy in the United States has begun to increase after declining in the 1990s, McFeatters noted in comments carred by Scripps Howard News Service. The Guttmacher Institute says that nearly half of all 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.
Those teens who become pregnant are under intense pressure to deliver their babies rather than abort them. And those who opt to rear the children themselves face daunting costs for health care, day care and other items.
“According to the National Child Care Information Center, the cost of day care in the United States is rising steadily every year and now ranges between $4,000 for a child younger than one to $16,000,” McFeatters wrote.
Many other observers agreed that Palin has invited scrutiny of her family and her values by displaying her five children as part of her political image.
Ruth Hochberger, writing in the Huffington Post, agreed with Obama that the pregnancy is private. But she did say that Palin’s “family values positions are certainly among the principal reasons she was chosen by McCain.” In the speech announcing Palin’s selection, McCain called her emblematic of “the hopes and the values of working people,” Hochberger noted.
The Catholic online took sharp issue with that line of analysis.
“Today the internet was abuzz with discussion of what is ‘proper’ and allegations that this news somehow undermines the claim that Todd and Sarah truly hold ‘family values,’ ” The Catholic said. “How despicable! We should all praise Bristol and the father of this child for not opting to kill the baby through abortion. We should applaud and pray for the grandparents who have decided they will help the new family. The scurrilous and judgmental comments and concerns over whether this news undercuts Senator McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin are revealing.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.