Where is the empathy?
Religious right wing organizations and extremist social conservatives have more empathy for Sarah and Bristol Palin and Bristol’s pregnancy than they know what to do with. Everyone from Eagle Forum affiliate presidents to convention attendees have gushed about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, her decision to "choose life" for her child-to-be and the fact that this just shows how darn "normal" Palin and her family are. Sarah Palin’s speech last night did nothing to refute these comments, cementing her position hard and strong as America’s everyday, hockey-mom politician. Palin didn’t even mention the religious right’s support or social issues in any way, shape or form in her speech. Despite this, the pregnancy of Palin’s 17 year old unwed daughter remains just fine with the religious right.
Jessica Eschard, spokesperson for the Republican National Coalition for Life actually called on Americans to enthusiastically rally around the Palin’s story:
"Everybody, especially women as well as men, knows people who have been in this situation before. It makes their family real, which is what we’ve seen from day one," Echard said. "It will resonate with women voters because they’ll say, ‘That happened to me. That happened to someone down the street.’ "
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council praised Palin for "choosing life" calling it a "private matter" (though it hardly seems he’s thought these were private matters before):
"Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation. We are committed to praying for Bristol and her husband-to-be and the entire Palin family as they walk through a very private matter in the eyes of the public," Perkins added.
James Dobson sounded positively nonchalant about the turn of events considering his organization’s support of the biblical idea that sex outside of marriage is "dangerous and unacceptable":
"The media are already trying to spin this as evidence Gov. Palin is a ‘hypocrite,’ but all it really means is that she and her family are human," Mr. Dobson said.
While Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, said, "This is a family that keeps dealing with challenges, and they keep doing the right thing." Humans are "fallen beings," Adams added.
You’d think with all of that forgiveness and understanding, these advocates and leaders would be working hard to help other families in similar situations. But where is that same empathy when it comes to creating and supporting governmental policies and enacting legislation that will provide the same kind of support for young, pregnant teens that are not and, presumably, will not be the children of candidates for Vice President of the U.S.?
In fact, religious right "family values" organizations and their allies have never been anything but judgmental and thoughtless when it comes to providing for teen and unwed mothers. Remember Ronald Reagan’s "welfare moms" that helped solidify his win against Jimmy Carter? Many of these "welfare moms", according to Reagan, were teen mothers sucking our social service system dry by bilking the government for money they didn’t really need, defrauding the system and generally screwing up society by daring to procreate whether by accident or on purpose when they couldn’t afford to support their children without assistance. Of course, since then, the myth of a "welfare queen" driving around in a $60,000 Cadillac, collecting welfare under 12 different names has long been debunked.
While social conservatives are screaming about Palin’s pregnancy being about "choosing life" and lauding her for her wonderful choice to raise her child and marry at 17 years old, they are equally as angry at any other teenage female (remember, it’s females that the conservative, extremists rail against when it comes to teens and sex) who chooses to have sex.
What the religious right doesn’t get, however, is that those who question them are not delving into this discussion to demonize Bristol but to advocate on behalf of the millions of other "Bristols" that are now or will in the future face a similar situation. It’s crucial that we shine a light on the far right’s hypocrisy (or "cruelty" as Linda Hirschman writing on Slate.com points out) and the policy decisions that both Palin and McCain consistently make that hurt young people just like Bristol Palin, bar access to programs that can help reduce unintended pregnancies among teens just like Bristol Palin and educate young people (just like Bristol Palin) in order to make healthy decisions about sex.
James Dobson has called teen pregnancy "a moral failure" and the Family Research Council’s then-president Gary Bauer in 1993 had this to say about teen pregnancy:
"If you look at the last 30 years, as a culture we have removed any form of being judgmental about out-of-wedlock pregnancy, as well as a host of other things," said Gary L. Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, a social policy research organization in Washington. "While at first glance that may seem to be kind, the fact is that when a society has increasing rates of illegitimacy, it is headed for the rocks of decline."[emphasis mine]
What does Gary Bauer say now about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy?
“Bristol Palin and her family understand that a new life has been created,” said Bauer. “The commitment to bring that life into the world is a testament to their pro-life philosophy. I commend them for the example they are setting for other women in crisis pregnancies.”
Meanwhile, the Family Research Council who has praised Palin and her daughter has something very different to say about teen sex on their web site:
Negative Consequences of Unwed Teen Sex
Practicing abstinence helps couples to avoid the long-lasting negative consequences of premarital sex, including out-of-wedlock childbearing, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), emotional problems, promiscuity, and future marital break-up.
The FRC’s materials on "unwed teen sex" go into detail about the likelihood of teens who engage in premarital sex to commit suicide, in fact.
Ah, if only they could be as positive about all teen pregnancies as they are about Bristol’s. Where is their fear over her increased risks of depression, promiscuity, and divorce? But then we are talking about an upper middle class white daughter of a VP candidate and not a lower income teen whose "background" does not lend itself to support from this same religious right.
But Concerned Women for America (CWA) is perhaps the most silent on the Bristol Palin pregnancy considering that they have consistently portrayed teenage pregnancy as contributing to the decline of civilization as we know it:
"The rise in teenage pregnancy and illegitimacy has contributed to an unprecedented breakdown of the family, the building block of a healthy society…
However, there are not only societal costs. According to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, "when teenagers have babies, both mothers and children tend to have problems — health, social, psychological and economic. Teens who have children out-of-wedlock are more likely to end up at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. … These numbers have enormous economic implications for the country-and for the rearing of children in America."
And that’s not all CWA has to say about teen pregnancy:
How, in good conscience, can a supposedly responsible adult support public policies that would communicate to such girls and boys that "safe-sex" is an appropriate option? Even if pregnancy were not a consideration, youngsters are not physically or psychologically ready for sexual activity. Even if morality were not an issue, the earlier a child begins sexual activity, the more partners he or she will have and the more risk he or she will face for sexually-transmitted diseases — now at epidemic stages among youths under 25.
In fact, in this article, CWA talks about how so few "speak out or even acknowledge the overwhelming risk to youth from sex outside of marriage…" And yet now when they have the nation’s undivided attention, when all eyes are focused on this issue, they instead remain tight-lipped in deference to politics:
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for American legislative action committee said in a statement the family drama had offered Palin a chance to make a "politically convenient choice or the right one."
We who are strong and vocal advocates for ensuring that young people receive the education, information and tools they need to make the best decisions for themselves throughout their lives are told we are "delving into private matters" — even by Senator Barack Obama himself. But what supporters of reproductive and sexual health and rights are doing is linking this situation to the seemingly unsympathetic policies directed towards Americans who are not privileged enough to have the 100% support of their families and the entire social conservative movement — those unsympathetic policies that John McCain, Sarah Palin and religious right organizations like Family Values, CWA, and others promote.
The Bristol Palin pregnancy story reveals one more disconnect between such "family values" organizations support for white, upper middle class Christian teens and low-income teens whether they are white, Latina, African American. The disconnect is this: if you are a member of the former, you are likely a) bringing another white, upper middle class, Christian into the world and so are to be taken care of at all costs. If you are a member of the latter you are: a) a welfare mom who is "using" the system to her own "advantage" and should be condemned or b) bringing a life into the world that will continue the cycle of poverty and dependence on government safety net programs.
Maybe a better tactic is to ask what a McCain/Palin policy initiative might look like in regards to teenage pregnancy? If, as all of the religious right organizations are now pointing out (and as Palin tried so hard to reflect in her speech tonight) this is what a "normal American family looks like" — then what kinds of policies will a McCain/Palin administration enact to help these millions of families, young people and their future children? Certainly all of these stories will not unfold in upper middle class worlds. There are one million teens that become pregnant in this country every year. If social conservatives are to support the choice by even 50% of those young people to raise the child, as they have so lovingly and wholly done with Bristol Palin, we must have policies in place to ensure these young people receive social services from the government if they cannot afford them, correct?
Palin, as Governor of Alaska, cut funding in a proposed budget for programs in Alaska that aid pregnant and parenting teen women. She cut funding to Alaska’s Family Services, an organization that provides a range of services for Alaskan families. McCain opposed the expansion of government-funded health care for low-income children and, according to Medical News Today:
In Senate votes, McCain has opposed some proposals to pay for teen pregnancy prevention programs. In 2006, McCain voted against a proposal by some Senate Democrats to send $100 million to communities for teen pregnancy prevention programs that would have included comprehensive sex education that included information on contraceptives. In 2005, McCain opposed a Senate Democratic proposal that would have spent tens of millions of dollars to pay for pregnancy prevention programs other than abstinence-only education, including education programs on emergency contraception.
But Sarah Palin doesn’t just oppose teen pregnancy prevention programs. Palin leads one of only ten states that does not have universal pre-K education for its children. And, according to Palin, that’s just fine:
Palin said she appreciates the need for pre-kindergarten education, but it is kindergarten through 12th grade that she is most intent on helping. "Constitutionally, we are mandated to provide public education and, traditionally, we are talking K-12," she said.
Alaska, because of its oil, is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, so Palin’s position on pre-K education is not for a lack of funding.
Religious right organizations are leaders of hypocrisy but their embrace of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and subsequent marriage-to-be verges on the ridiculous considering their almost near obsession with the evils of premarital sex and what they perceive as the "downfall of civilization" consequences of teenage pregnancy.
Sarah Palin’s daughter deserves love and support as all pregnant and parenting teens deserve – no matter what their income level or what family they happen to be born into. Bristol Palin is on the receiving end of the kind of non-judgmental response one would hope the religious right and social conservatives would offer up to all teens in our country facing similar circumstances, as Jesse Taylor at Pandagon notes so well. Yet given John McCain’s record of opposing common sense approaches to teen pregnancy prevention, sexuality education and care for young pregnant and parenting women, in concert with Sarah Palin’s history of cutting social service program funding for these same groups, we have to wonder whether it’s only the white, privileged pregnant teens who will be lucky enough to receive support from this potential administration.