Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bristol Palin and teenage pregnancy among religious conservatives

There's something deeply weird about the way the Republicans handled the Bristol Palin pregnancy during the Presidential campaign.

On the one hand, they promote chastity and worse-than-useless abstinence-only sex (mis)education programs. Many fundamentalist parents in practice oppose any kind of sex education for their kids. The Christian Right has made opposition to abortion rights one of its signature issues. They increasingly oppose any kind of public funding of actual birth control. And have even lobbied against a vaccine that could protect young women against cervical cancer on the grounds that it would make them more likely to have sex.

Yet 17-year-old Bristol Palin, pregnant without being married, was embraced by the honchos of the Republican Party, her mother is regarded with wild enthusiasm by the Christian Right despite this apparent "failure" of her parenting. And the pregnant-but-unmarried Bristol and her boyfriend who presumably collaborated in creating her condition were treated like stars at the Republican National Convention.

In a flawed but also perceptive article, Joseph Lelyveld in John & Sarah in St. Paul New York Review of Books 09/11/08 (10/09/08 edition) points out the odd cultural moment in which the national Republican Convention joined in the celebration of Bristol's teenaged pregnancy:


After Bristol Palin's pregnancy was dragged into public glare by the campaign in order to smother a wild Internet prairie fire pointing to Bristol as the actual mother of her own mother's infant, the campaign spoke piously of the need to respect the young woman's privacy. It then searched for ways to turn the media pack's obsession with the pregnancy into a plus for the campaign. This was accomplished audaciously by having the young couple in the receiving line, in front of the campaign media pool, to be welcomed into the extended first family by a beaming John McCain on his arrival in St. Paul, a laying on of hands that prepared the way to what became almost an engagement party for the hand-holding couple on the convention's neon-lit stage after Bristol's mother gave her speech.

This struck secular commentators as a milestone for Republicans who not so long ago demonized the TV character Murphy Brown for having a fictional baby out of wedlock. Led by the evangelist James Dobson, who said earlier in the year that he couldn't vote for McCain, the "base" now shone with Christian forgiveness. The Palins, Dobson said, "are in our prayers and those of millions of Americans."

"Life happens," a McCain campaign spokesman said. It was an American story in which millions of Americans would see their own reflection, said another. The nosy, gabby media were way out of line when they speculated about Palin family values. Anyone who can't find a bit of amusement in such two-faced pieties should probably give up following politics, especially as played by Republicans on the presidential playing field. [my emphasis]
But this view of it doesn't satisfy my curiosity about the matter. Is it hypocrisy? Not exactly. In theory, the Christian religion in practically all of its forms theoretically not only encourages but demands that Christians forgive the sins of others, sex and pregnancy outside of marriage being considered particularly grievous sins among fundamentalists. Stigmatizing unmarried pregnancies is also incompatable in practice with a hardline position that life begins at conception. Teenaged girls who are made social outcasts or who are rejected by their families are presumably much more likely to have abortions.

And not only decent Christianity but simple humanity tell us it's obvious that a preganant teenager's family shouldn't abandon her or reject her because of her "sin".

So, on the one hand, it's tempting to say that we shouldn't give the Christian Right credit for doing what any decent person would presumably do. But I also realize it's not that simple. Among conservative Christians, there is a stigma attaching to pregnancy outside of marriage and even to the "illegitimate" child resulting from it. For a devout parent to actually decide that love will guide their attitude instead of stigma and judgment often requires real courage.

Does the celebration of Bristol Palin represent a break with the attitude of stigma? I don't believe that it does.

Here it's worth remembering that Dick and Liz Cheney have a lesbian daughter. Apparently they fully accept her sexual orientation and embrace their grandchildren. Does this mean Dick Cheney is a model of Christian love? If he is, I'm converting to some different religion.

But that didn't stop Cheney from fully supporting the Christian Right's anti-gay-and-lesbian agenda and the demagoguery around the issue. Here Jesus' reminder to his disciples that even the heathen love their own children is relevant. In Cheney's case, the attitude is an example of "the rules don't apply to us". Which is perfectly consistent with the rest of Cheney's nefarious conduct.

I suspect the same is true with Palin. It may be an act of decency for one's own child. But what good are you if you love your own children but needlessly persecute other people's children? Or even incite bigoted hatred against them? In that regard, I'm not impressed with Palin's brand of "the rules don't apply to us" morality in Bristol's case.

Also, the Bristol Palin story involves the traditional solution of the presumptive father "doing the right thing" and marrying her. But is it the right thing? If Bristol had decided to not marry the guy, would she have been up there on stage at the Republican Convention? If she had decided to have an abortion?

I suspect that in families adhering to the "traditional values" view, that even nominal acceptance of a teenager's pregnancy may carry a great deal of stigma still. And that it manifests itself in family tensions, feelings of anger and shame and prejudices of varying degrees of openness against the child.

Plus, it feels weird to be saying this, but I suspect that within the fundamentalist subculture that the seeming celebration of Bristol's pregnancy at the Republican Convention may be processed by teenagers as being a glamorizing of her situation. Which certainly has its ethical advantages over the "scarlet A" approach.

But teenaged pregnancy is a problem for many people. And I'm not sure that, in the fundamentalist families on whom it probably made the greatest impression, that a seeming celebration of Bristol's situation was the best thing to do.

The real point is that teenagers need decent sex education so that they can make informed choices about their sex lives and will know how to medically protect themselves. Planned Parenthood, in Reducing Teenage Pregnancy 08/01/06, reports:

Responsible, medically accurate sexuality education that begins in kindergarten and continues in an age-appropriate manner through the 12th grade is necessary given the early ages at which young people are initiating intercourse — 7.2 percent of students nationwide report having sex before the age of 13, 42.5 percent by grade 10, and 60.9 percent by grade 12 (CDC, 1998). In fact, the most successful programs aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy are those targeting younger adolescents who are not yet sexually experienced (Frost & Forrest, 1995).

"Balanced and realistic" sexuality education programs that encourage students to postpone sex until they are older, but also promote safer sex practices for those who choose to become sexually active, have been proven effective at delaying first intercourse and increasing use of contraception among sexually active youth. These programs have not been shown to initiate early sexual activity or to increase levels of sexual activity or numbers of sexual partners among sexually active youth (Berne & Huberman, 1999; Kirby, 1997).

Many sexuality education programs in the United States currently caution young people to not have sex until they are married. Of the 69 percent of school districts with a policy to teach sexuality education, 86 percent promote abstinence as the preferred or the only option for adolescents (Landry, et al., 1999). However, abstinence-only programs are not effective because they fail to delay the onset of intercourse and often provide information that is medically inaccurate and potentially misleading (Berne & Huberman, 1999; Kirby, 1997). Only nine states require sexuality education that includes information about contraception. Five other states require that if sexuality education is provided, it must include information about contraception (NARAL, 2000).
For the record, here are links to Andrew Sullivan's posts from The Atlantic Online that dealt with the question of whether Sarah Palin most recent pregnancy was actually a sham to cover a pregnancy of Bristol's. I suppose that if Bristol gives birth on schedule, that will pretty much lay those speculations to rest, since the timing would have been incompatable with her current pregnancy.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm 08/31/08

She Looks Pregnant Here 09/01/08

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