This is not a post about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, nor is it a post about the failures of abstinence-only education. It is not a commentary on the suitability of Sarah Palin for the office of vice-president.
Given the real world experiences that have shown that abstinence-only education doesnâ€™t work, what policies would you pursue that would actually reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies?â€ We could even ask, â€œHow would your policies help 17 year old girls who donâ€™t want to be parents?â€
Glendon made me re-read my own post about choosing abortion. I was a senior in high school, and my girlfriend a year behind me when she got pregnant. I was 17, just as Bristol Palin is now. Both my girlfriend and I told our parents soon after we discovered that she was pregnant, and we asked for their support and advice. Presumably, Bristol Palin did the same thing.
The reason I write about this today is not to question Bristol’s choice to keep the child or to marry the future baby’s father. And no, nearly a quarter-century after I accompanied my girlfriend to the doctor’s office for an abortion on a warm June Saturday morning, I am not second-guessing a decision that we made jointly. What I’m thinking about today is the role that parents and culture play in shaping the reproductive decisions that adolescents make.
The Palins presumably taught Bristol she should be abstinent until she was married. She ended up pregnant at 17. My high-school girlfriend, whom I’ll call “Mary”, and I were raised by liberal parents, parents who encouraged us to use contraception when and if we chose to have intercourse. The Palins are evangelical conservatives; Mary and I were raised by atheist progressives who donated to Planned Parenthood. And the end result was the same: the daughter of the fundamentalist and the daughter of the progressive each ended up with an unintended pregnancy. No ideology, no theology, and no amount of parental love is a perfect prophylaxis against gettin’ knocked up. Human experience bears out that truth with abundant evidence.
Though I flirted with the idea of asking Mary to keep the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption, I knew that that wasn’t what she wanted. Neither of us wanted to get married, and neither of us even considered the possibility of raising the child together. There were many reasons why abortion was chosen, but perhaps one reason among many was that we both came from families where that was the preferred option. I know that Mary’s mother would have been devastated if her daughter had put off her college plans in order to have a child; my family would have been equally upset. If we had polled our extended families (we didn’t), the consensus would have been that abortion was the “least worst” option.
Mind you, our families didn’t talk us into doing something to which we were strongly opposed. (We were both tearful and deeply ambivalent much of the time!) Mary and I stayed together as a couple for nearly a year after the abortion, and she remained adamant that she had made the right choice. (We were both, admittedly, a little tearful in February 1986, when what would have been the due date for that pregnancy passed.) I haven’t seen Mary in twenty years. It is simply impossible to imagine how different our lives would be if she had kept the baby, or gotten married.
I am not haunted by the abortion for which I was half responsible, and I am confident Mary isn’t either. But I remember well what it was like to be young and scared. I remember that when we found out about the pregnancy, both Mary and I went through separate periods of regression with our parents. I found myself feeling very scared and very young, reminded by the enormity of the situation that I was, in fact, not yet fully adult. Sixteen year-old Mary, who had been distant from her mother in the months leading up to the discovery of the pregnancy, suddenly became much closer to her. For a short time, we were both far more reliant on our families than we had been. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the abortion experience brought me closer to my family and Mary closer to hers.
Mary and I were blessed with very good parents. I am sure the Palins are also good parents. But the point is, at the moment a pregnancy is discovered, family pressure can be enormous. Had Mary and I decided to marry and raise the child, we would eventually have won acceptance from our kin, but we would have faced stiff resistance. Similarly, if a girl like Bristol Palin were to choose to terminate the pregnancy, she would presumably be forgiven –eventually — by her parents, but would face colossal pressure to make a different decision. Teenagers famously over-estimate their own emotional autonomy; when a pregnancy comes, the need for family support is often very great. And that need for support makes the teenager vulnerable to external pressure one way or another.
We live in a culture that shames teenage pregnancy. My mother was very loving with me when I told her, but at one point she said to me “Hugo, how could you?” She didn’t mean “How could you have had sex”, she meant “How could you have had sex without using protection?” In a more conservative family, the same question might be asked with the same tone of exasperation and disappointment. Neither Mary nor I were ever made to feel bad for having chosen to have sex, but we were admonished for having had sex without birth control. A family like the Palins might embrace Bristol, but the admonishment that will surely come will have more to do with a violation of abstinence ideology than the lack of reliance on contraception. And whether the parents are upset about the sex itself, or about the absence of protection, it’s pretty likely that the kids involved will feel some degree of embarrassment and guilt.
When we feel guilty about something, we want to expiate that guilt. The conservative Christian narrative is that guilt is expiated by getting married and having the baby. In a more progressive middle-class family like my own, the guilt is expiated by having an abortion and becoming a more assiduous employer of birth control. Of course, plenty of young people don’t tell their parents about an unintended pregnancy. And plenty of young people make decisions that contradict their families expectations. But there’s no escaping the reality that the culture in which a teen is raised has a significant influence on the decision that she (and, sometimes, the boy who impregnated her) will make when confronted with this all-too-familiar crisis. If Bristol Palin had had Mary’s parents, she might have made a different choice. And if I had been dating a girl from Bristol’s background, I might well be the father of a twenty-two year-old today.
As a youth worker, I’ve walked with kids through this decision. I’ve sat with a fifteen year-old girl from All Saints as she told her parents she was pregnant; I’ve also helped pay (out of my own pocket) for another girl’s abortion. In the latter case, the young woman was too scared to tell her parents, and I honored that decision. She knew she’d be pressured to keep the baby, and she didn’t want that. And in a third case, my wife’s niece got pregnant a few years ago at age 17. She came to us first, not to her parents, and told us she wanted to have the baby and raise it on her own. (The sperm donor had no interest in being in the picture.) My wife and I supported her wholeheartedly, and never pressured her to have an abortion or give the child up for adoption. We continue to help provide financially and emotionally for our great-nephew.
The point? Teenagers who get pregnant need advice, they need love, they need direction. But they also deserve the right to decide from whom it is they should receive those things. which is why I am so adamantly opposed to parental notification laws. I know well how comforting loving parents can be in a time of crisis; I also know well just how powerful the pressure can be to make a choice that is congruent with the family world view. In the end, Mary and I almost certainly would have chosen differently had we come from different backgrounds. The same might well be said for Bristol Palin.
Not the place to discuss the Palin nomination, folks.