As the featured speaker at a pro-life banquet last week, Sarah Palin unexpectedly identified with women who have abortions—though she never used the “a” word:
I had found out that I was pregnant while out of state first, at an oil and gas conference. While out of state, there just for a fleeting moment, wow, I knew, nobody knows me here, nobody would ever know. I thought, wow, it is easy, could be easy to think, maybe, of trying to change the circumstances. No one would know. No one would ever know.
It’s interesting that Palin’s first thought was what other people would think. It’s not surprising—for women faced with this choice, it can seem like everyone’s watching you. In Palin’s description, a legal procedure takes on the secrecy and shame of an illegal act. For many women faced with this choice, a dense and complicated sense of judgment is indeed part of the experience and part of the decision.
Palin claims, though, that her decision wasn’t determined by what other people would think—after all, as she says, she was traveling when she found out she was pregnant and she felt anonymous:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Ultimately, Palin said, she decided she had to "walk the walk" concerning her long-standing antiabortion views. . . . "I had just enough faith to know that my trying to change the circumstances wasn’t any answer," said Palin.
She seems to be saying that the decision to have her baby was a way for her to stay true to herself. But for a politician with a long anti-choice history, is it that simple? Could Palin have really considered an abortion without considering how she would reconcile it not just with her conscience, but with her political past and future?
What’s more interesting is the way that she argues for choice in her speech, as Ruth Marcus points out in the Washington Post:
The "good decision to choose life," as she put it, would be no decision at all, because abortion would not be an option.
This is not a particularly complex point, but it is one toward which Palin seems deliberately obtuse. It came up at the Republican convention last summer, when the Palins issued a statement about their daughter’s pregnancy: "We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby." Again, in the world according to Palin, there would be no decision at all.
The themes of Palin’s speech and of her reaction to Bristol’s pregnancy are indeed thought, reflection, and choice. Palin has unintentionally demonstrated that there’s a way in which a pro-choice world honors the decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy more than a world without choice. Palin had the chance to consider abortion and reject that choice, and that experience is now bound up in her love for her son. Other women may identify with her personal journey. Some, however, will not, and that’s the idea behind choice.
Palin experienced something that personalized the abortion debate for her. But she’s wrong to claim to understand the full spectrum of women’s experiences:
“So we went through some things a year ago that now lets me understand a woman’s, a girl’s temptation to maybe try to make it all go away if she has been influenced by society to believe that she’s not strong enough or smart enough or equipped enough or convenienced enough to make the choice to let the child live. I do understand what these women, what these girls go through in that thought process.”
I would argue with Palin over the idea that society encourages women to have abortions. But whatever pernicious pressures the pro-life movement imagines, there’s something far more powerful than influence, and it’s called legislation. Women currently have the freedom to be strong, smart, and equipped mothers, but if Sarah Palin has her way, women will be not influenced, but told, by the law, that they’re not strong enough or smart enough or equipped enough to make their own choice.