If we take Sarah Palin at her word—and despite the blog chatter to which I sacrificed my Labor Day weekend, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t—she learned last December, four months into her pregnancy, that the baby she was carrying possessed an extra 21st chromosome, the cause of Down syndrome. Then she made an unusual decision, one made by only 10 percent of US women who receive a similar prenatal diagnosis: She decided to carry her baby to term.
No doubt this was a difficult personal decision, made in consultation with her doctor and with the advice of her husband, Todd. As a dedicated foe of abortion rights, Palin might have leaned against termination from the start, but if it were all a slam dunk one has to wonder why she had any prenatal genetic tests at all. I suspect that when Palin and her family received the news they agonized late into several nights before deciding they could take on the challenge of raising a disabled child.
Now we have the additional revelation that Bristol Palin, Sarah and Todd’s 17-year-old daughter, is about to have her own baby in a few months. No doubt this provoked a heated family debate as well, one that ended in Todd and Sarah’s affirmation of unconditional love and support.
And, you know, that’s great. It really is. Some may talk about overpopulation and whether a mother of five can govern (accusations of sexism, in that case, stick); others may talk about moral values and the failure of abstinence education and accuse Republicans of hypocrisy. But teenagers are mercurial, parents busy, and mistakes get made. The day we can no longer welcome a new life into the world, we might as well hang it up as a species. The warm reception given baby Trig and the pride the Palins claim to feel about Bristol’s pregnancy speaks to the sincerity of their convictions. It would be small-minded of all of us not to admire what is in fact not hypocrisy, but a stunning absence of it.
It would also be taking a narrow view of things, however, to forget that the Palins are a two-income family: The mother is a public servant, the father is a union worker, and they no doubt have excellent private health insurance. Both Bristol and Sarah Palin have the luxury of exercising true reproductive choice, and continuing with pregnancies that would have devastated—financially and emotionally—many an ordinary family. A recent Gates Foundation survey found that one-third of female teenage dropouts cited pregnancy as the reason they couldn’t stay in school. Another survey studied women in their 30s who were once teenage moms and found that only 3 percent of them completed a college degree. Just in Alaska, families with Down syndrome children—half of whom have congenital heart defects in addition to some degree of mental retardation, hearing, and vision problems—report long wait lists for subsidized medical care and special education programs.
If John McCain wins the election and Palin becomes the kind of vice president who exerts any influence over policy, she will no doubt do what she can to overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal again. That’s her calling and her base; that’s the reason she has, as campaign talking points would have it, “energized” the conservatives who eluded the maverick McCain. But what I wonder is this: Can we also expect that she will fight for longer maternity leaves and subsidized child care? Will she fight for programs that assist parents in raising disabled children, and force private insurance companies to pay for their care? Will she make it possible for a working-class college student to provide her child with a solid education in a safe neighborhood, and finish her education herself?
Doubtful. Paradoxically, kindness toward mothers and children in need—in the form of food, shelter, and education—is not a value the party she belongs to, including that energized base, upholds. Just this year, Palin used her gubernatorial power to reduce funding to Convenant House Alaska’s Passage House, a program that “assists young mothers in developing skills such as healthy parenting, money management, priority setting, housing acquisition and social skills development.” John McCain’s health care plan, which promises only to lower the costs of medical care and offer families health savings accounts, would do little to lessen the financial burden of expectant mothers or parents with disabled children. Consequently, it will do little to reduce the number of abortions. As the Guttmacher Foundation has found, in more than 32 studies conducted in 27 countries, the second most common reason women give for terminating a pregnancy is socioeconomic, including “lack of support from the father, poverty and unemployment.”
If Sarah Palin’s pro-life agenda doesn’t factor that in—and doesn’t fight to give families equal access to health care and education regardless of their economic status—it’s not only inhumane but ineffective. As Hillary Clinton reminded us so long ago, raising a child takes a village. And if the McCain-Palin ticket wants any segment of her disaffected supporters, they will spend their time in Minneapolis crafting a new plan for the nation’s 47 million uninsured—one that will allow them, like Sarah and Bristol, to have their babies in a political culture of unconditional love and support. And, even, pride.