Yasmin Nair

Barefoot and Pregnant in the White House: Sarah and Bristol Palin

Filed By Yasmin Nair | September 03, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Media, Politics, The Movement
Tags: anti-choice, bristol, bristol palin, chosen family, John McCain, life, palin, pro-choice, pro-life, reproductive justice, reproductive rights, Sarah Palin

Some on the putative left, represented by the likes of John Nichols, have taken it upon themselves to tell us all that the Bristol Palin pregnancy story is simply too insignificant in comparison to, for instance, the "Troopergate" story. Or the story that's coming to light, as I write this, of protesters (I prefer to call them dissidents) and reporters being surveilled, attacked, and unjustly jailed at both political conventions.

They're mistaken. A state's imposed limitations on or outright denial of a woman's right to an abortion (which is where we're heading) tells us everything we need to know about its attitude to a myriad other issues of power and citizenship. A state that openly represses those who dare protest its policies is also a state that doesn't hesitate to force life-changing reproductive choices on behalf of those it deems most vulnerable and most expendable.

At this point, there's a strong chance that Sarah Palin, who opposes a woman's right to an abortion for any reason except when it poses a threat to her life, will be in the White House. And there's an equally strong chance, frankly, that she might end up being our President. Palin's politics on abortions are political.

That may seem like an obvious point, but it's being forgotten in the collective drive, at least among some of us, to insist that Bristol Palin's story isn't really a story. The fact that the politics of abortion has played out in interesting ways in the Palin household doesn't suddenly make abortion simply a matter of "choice" or a "personal matter." It's still political, and it's a political issue that has far-reaching implications on all our lives.

Let's not kid ourselves. Sarah Palin's draconian policies on abortion can't be separated from those of the Right in general. Susan Wicklund's clear-eyed memoir, This Common Secret, about her years as an abortion doctor tells us that the abortion debate is meaningless for millions of women, especially those who live in small-town or rural America, who're forced to carry their pregnancies to term because of inadequate access to abortion clinics. We're deluding ourselves if we think that the rollback of abortion rights is "only" a woman's issue and therefore marginal in comparison to "bigger" stories.

So when we dismiss the issue of Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy - and her own story of having given birth to a child with Down's Syndrome - as somehow less relevant than all the other stories out there, we ignore the extent to which Palin's personal decisions will eventually affect the political and economic lives of women. Once again, we've fallen into the neo-liberal trap that everything to do with the body is a matter of choice and a personal issue.

The fact is that Sarah Palin's rise in the Republican Party and the subsequent galvanizing of the anti-abortion front will also mean a further weakening of the abortion rights movement, which has already conceded too much in the name of morality and "justice." Renaming reproduction rights "reproductive justice" (as if justice were somehow inseparable from rights, or superior to them) was just one instance of the cop-out that the left has engaged in, with regard to abortion.

Despite all the talk of the surprise and shock among some Republicans in response to the news of Bristol's pregnancy, the fact is that the tale of a 17-year-old carrying a foetus to term (let's put this as bluntly as possible) dovetails beautifully with the Party's embrace of an anti-abortion rights agenda (let's put aside for a bit the question of whether a 17-year-old raised in a household with such scary politics around abortion might actually have any choice in the matter of her pregnancy).

Whether you're a straight man or woman with no desire for children; a lesbian or gay parent who'd like to be sure of your parental rights; or, like me, a queer lesbian who likes to sleep with men and remain child-free - you can be sure that Palin's presence and politics on abortion has far-reaching implications for the rest of us.

So, we shouldn't ignore this story. The pro-abortion crowd and the Democrats will tip-toe around it and continue turning the other cheek as Republicans keep spreading stories about bad Dems being mean to poor Bristol and not leaving her alone. They'll ignore the indications that perhaps neither Bristol nor her boyfriend Levi are happy and willing parents-to-be, and get distracted with the issue of being "nice" about it all. But surely the rest of us can do the work that neither the press nor the politicos are willing to do.

Surely we can insist on asking Sarah Palin about the consequences of her abortion policies on the political and economic lives of women who may not, at age 44 (like her) or 17 (like Bristol) want to have children.

Ironically but not unsurprisingly, the absence of abortion rights also comes with the absence of support for women who do have children, especially on their own. The massive and often unequal child-bearing and caring responsibilities that women are saddled with compel them to subjugate themselves to the state, and to men. Let's not forget that a woman's right to have an abortion has everything to do with citizenship and power and can't be dismissed as irrelevant.

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Can't we talk about Palin's psychopathic abortion views without discussing the lurid details of a teenager's life? We don't know s*** about Bristol Palin's life and feelings, and she's a teenager, and we shouldn't. Maybe she was coerced into this, maybe she wasn't. Maybe she's in love with this boy and wants to marry him. Maybe her parents, despite their crazy public personae, have given her all the options, and all of the education possible to make an informed choice. Probably not, but we don't know the first damn thing about the home life of the Palins. And the thing is, if this keeps on as a major media issue, I know the media, and they aren't going to use this as a teachable moment. they are going to use this as a lurid, *shocking* story to get eyeballs to their publications and shows. It will turn Sarah Palin into the poor victim wanting to protect her family, when we all now that that is false.

If we talk about the toxicity of abstinence only education, and of "pro life" policies, and yoke Sarah Palin to her own stances on these things, then the inferences will be clear to everyone who would be listening to us anyway. And we'll be able to do it without making a scared teenager from a small town into the centerpiece of a national media frenzy.

Oh, and the reason talking about her earmarks thing is better doesn't have as much to do with the fact that government waste is more important than abortion (once again, it isn't), but it has to do with the fact that once it gets out that she hired a lobbyist to get millions and millions of dollars of earmarks for her little town, then McCain looks like a lying idiot whenever he talks about anything that's not his POW experience. It helps take HIM down, which is the end goal, anyway.

Dear bittergradstudent,

I'm not entirely sure where you get the idea that I might have indicated I wanted us to discuss "the lurid details of a teenager's life" purely for the sake of doing so. I brought up the possibilities of what might be happening in the Palin household not to focus on the Palins per se, but to indicate that those are the sorts of issues that are, in fact, very much a part of the abortion issue.

The issues here are very much connected to consent laws, and the amount of self-determination young women are allowed when it comes to the scary prospect of abortion. That's not to focus on lurid details but to ask how women, especially poor and/or very young women might have any control over reproductive choices. The press will no doubt translate this as our seeking "lurid details." And I suspect we will eventually kowtow to the press and the Right and stop asking these questions. But they need to be asked. I highly recommend Susan Wicklund's book, This Common Secret (here's the link to my review again )for more on this issue.

As for the bit about a "scared teenager from a small town [in] the centerpiece of a national media frenzy": I think it's important to remember that that's exactly the kind of rhetoric that the press has been mouthing and which comes directly from the Republicans. I have no doubt that Bristol is not the happiest person in the universe at this point but Sarah Palin has been complicit in making her family and her "family values" central to this campaign.

We have a right to ask questions about how those values really translate into policies that govern our bodies. We should take this opportunity to expose the ways in which the Right's policies around abstinence-only education and abortion leave everyone, including their own children, extremely vulnerable. You write that "If we talk about the toxicity of abstinence only education, and of "pro life" policies, and yoke Sarah Palin to her own stances on these things, then the inferences will be clear to everyone who would be listening to us anyway." If you read my piece more carefully, I think you'll see that's exactly what I'm advocating and in a far more direct fashion.

It's not direct at all. How politicians live their personal lives is dramatically removed from what their politics are. There is no reason to talk about Bristol Palin. Most of what you talk about in your response to me has almost nothing to do with her. At best, she is an example of how abstinence only and "pro-life" "education" fails. But, since we dont' know anything about the life experience of this child, we don't really know if her experience is truly a failure--to say so with any certainty, we have to invoke some really nasty stereotypes about teenage mothers.

But we have mountains and mountains of data showing that these things fail. We can refute Sarah Palin's claims about abortion and creationism and everything else directly, using public information. We don't need to muck around with speculation about peoples' private lives. If the focus of all this media attention were on Palin being a Christianist lunatic, and not on "OMG! Her daughter's preggos!", I'd be more trusting of the argument to use Bristol's pregnancy as a teaching moment.

And journalists aren't 'dissidents'. THAT'S a story that's not getting any coverage at this convention.

Dear bittergradstudent,

I do wish you'd read more carefully. I wrote "of protesters (I prefer to call them dissidents) *and* reporters" (emphasis added here). But it's still worth remembering that journalists are sometimes dissidents as well, especially in environments where criticising a government can invoke prison or a death sentence.

You write: "How politicians live their personal lives is dramatically removed from what their politics are." First, how is that different from what I've written? Is my post not, in fact, about highlighting the sheer hypocrisy of politicians who have the temerity to enact draconian legislation that governs our lives while they hold themselves to different standards?

Secondly, shouldn't we be pushing them further on their policies precisely because of this hypocrisy?

The rest of your post is rife with contradictions. You write: "There is no reason to talk about Bristol Palin. Most of what you talk about in your response to me has almost nothing to do with her." So, which is it? I talk about Bristol Palin? Or I don't?

As for your bit about nasty stereotypes about teenage mothers: Again, if you read my piece, you'd understand that I'm hardly advocating the same. At this point, you're even contradicting your previous responses.

I could go on, but I need to put an end to this, so that I can have a conversation with someone else. I'm more than happy to engage in a productive dialogue with anyone who actually reads my piece and has a carefully thought-out response, no matter how critical. But, let me be blunt, I don't have the time or patience to keep responding to someone who keeps responding to a piece that *I* haven't written. You've obviously been reading a lot about the Palin story and want to address the media coverage that's out there. Please take your queries directly to those other journalists/writers instead of using my piece - which you refuse to read - as the easy target.

After rereading for the third time, I am going to try to be as concise as possible, and I do also apologize for a bit of an imperious tone above. I will try to be clearer and more direct in this response.

From what I gather, the thesis of the piece that you advance is that we should focus on the Bristol Palin story, because it is a useful jumping off point from which we can discuss matters of choice and consent. So, your goal is not specificially to talk about Bristol Palin, but rather, to talk about her as a transitional point to talk about something else. Most of the text above, after all, is more about choice than her.

My argument is that this is a poor strategy because:

1) Knowing what I know about our current media environment (and the way this story, in particular, has been covered), it will be ineffective--the parts about Bristol Palin will be communicated and soundbyted, and the parts about choice will be forgotten. The effect will be that Sarah Palin will look even better as she gives her 'checkers' speech tonight.

2) Subtext is enough for the viewer at home to get the message across. If Obama and Biden just talk about choice and consent, with the way this story has been floating around in the paper, there is no need for an explicit connection to be made. Only, there will be no soundbyte that makes them look callous and horrible.

3) As the body text of your piece implies, the real problem isn't how Bristol Palin was raised, or that Sarah chose not to abort a Down's syndrome child, but rather, her absolutely insane and political brand of fundamentalist Christianity, and the horrible public policy positions that erupt from it (and how these positions reflect upon John McCain, who chose her, after all, at least partially due to these positions). You can talk about all these things without once mentioning her. It's not a useful segue.

4) We don't definitively know whether this pregnancy and marriage is coerced. All knowledge about that is based on speculation. But we do know about other coerced pregnancies and marriages, and that conservatives would like to make all pregnancies coerced. It is more constructive to talk about the latter than the former, and so I don't think the Bristol Palin story is a particularly constructive example to use when talking about choice. I know you want to talk about the latter examples too, but I would rather just go to directly talking about them, rather than tying them into a less-than-perfect story fraught with political pitfalls.

5) Additionally, there is an ethical component to this--teenagers personal lives shouldn't be involved in our politics. When commentary on Chelsea Clinton was injected into the 'mommy wars' debate in the early '90s, it was fundamentally unfair, and really harmful to her. The end result of having activists and politicians talk about her will be more attention focused on her. If 1) 2) and 3) weren't the case, perhaps the benefits would outweigh this harm, as you could argue that protecting choice is in the interests of the greater good. But I don't think that that's the case.

I think that a further focus on this story will only make the Palin family look like the victim, while a focus on her record without mention of her family can expose the hypocrisy all on its own, with no real counterargument available to them. Perhaps I'm wrong, but we should be ready for the way the media will react to an argument and the way that conservatives will counter-argue when we make arguments. And I think the timing of the Bristol Palin announcement smacks of rope-a-dope, though I could be wrong.

At this point, there's a strong chance that Sarah Palin, who opposes a woman's right to an abortion for any reason except when it poses a threat to her life, will be in the White House. And there's an equally strong chance, frankly, that she might end up being our President.

Are you implying that there's a 100% chance that McCain will die in office? I don't necessarily disagree....

Kidding aside though, there's a lot here that I agree with, Yasmin. The story is that there's not story here, but that rhetoric fall apart under examination.

The president of the Family Research Council said yesterday that this was a "private" matter for the Palin family. But that same organization wants to get rid of the right to privacy as described in Roe, Lawrence, and Griswold. What he said makes no sense.

Sarah Palin talks about the "choice" and the "decision" that her daughter made. Putting aside the problem that any of us exercise any real agency ever and that the minor daughter of someone who wants to be America's second most powerful anti-choicer has as much freedom to decide as an adult, wealthy, professional, white woman would, she's again talking about the choice and the decision that they made.

In other words, privacy and choice for them, but not for anyone else.

I also agree that a lot of what's happening here is brushing aside of a "women's issue." But I don't have any concrete solutions.

Hey Alex,

Thanks for reading and responding.

First, fair warning: I'm writing this as I listen to Rudy Giuliani warming up the crowd for Palin, which means I'm trying not to stab myself in the neck with a handy pen...forgive any typos or other errors here...aaaargh.

Yeah, I don't know of any more concrete solutions either, other than asking that we really press at the fallacies presented here (the cartoon that Bil just posted might actually be a handy way to summarise all this). But I already see the press and others backing away from any substantive discussion.

As for the Right: You'd think that the sheer lack of logic and utter hypocrisy on the part of people like Dobson, Palin et al would make even Republicans wonder about their politics. But no-oooo--oooo, they just plough on.

And now I'm back to, ew, waiting for Palin to come on. Here's hoping I make it through the evening.

great article yasmin!

It's actually barefoot and pregnant at the CNO Mansion - now the VP's residence. Hopefully the Clampetts will never so much as step a toe into that edifice.

In any event, the story about Palin is more about McCain than Palin. Someone wrote a decent speech for her this evening which she delivered well but condescendingly.

With respect to McCain, this misadventure was sloppy, hasty and amateurish. We already have a nitwit in the White House who prefers instinct over fact. Who would want another? Furthermore, McCain cannot possibly assert that Sarah was the most qualified choice. It makes me think of Bush 41 and Clarence Thomas - look how that worked out.

I suspect - perhaps hope - that all of this will be academic when the turds hit the turbines on the dismissal of the Director of Public Safety. The episode rings true because she previously dismissed (as Mayor) a librarian who would not fall in line when Palin tried to ban some books.

Ultimately Obama picked a VP; McCain picked a running mate.

Thanks for responding.

The title reflects my fear that the Palins will be in the White House sooner than we might think possible.

The librarian story has been circulating quite a bit; I've found slightly different versions of it in a few places. Or, perhaps, it's a more complicated story than we thought and hence has different parts. All of this (the pregnancy, Troopergate, librarygate, and who knows what else) may well be only the tip of the iceberg, as far as Palin's shenanigans go. This has to be the strangest VP pick. Ever. She makes the choice of Dan Quayle look good.

But then, Republicans have never really cared about whether or not their candidates are dumb/incompetent. Their strategy has been to fill significant posts with willing yes-people who'll further their agenda (witness Clarence Thomas). And the consequences, for the rest of us, have been disastrous. I agree with your last sentence.

I watched her perform last night. She's certainly a pit bull -- as long as she has own bully pulpit from which to hurl invectives. I wonder how she'll do once she's in front of reporters/moderators and is actually asked questions.

At this point, there's a strong chance that Sarah Palin, who opposes a woman's right to an abortion for any reason except when it poses a threat to her life, will be in the White House. And there's an equally strong chance, frankly, that she might end up being our President. Palin's politics on abortions are political.

You said a mouthful, Yasmin. Her politics on everything are up for scrutiny now; she might end up our commander in chief. Questioning her moral stances on issues like abortion while watching how that plays out in her own family is perfectly acceptable. Denigrating her 17 year old daughter for a choice to be sexually active is not.

A local conservative radio host has posted this to his blog and I think it's worthy of consideration:

Now for those of you who think this is a private matter and nobody’s business, I think you’re right, to a point. Where I disagree is that when you have a policy maker whose appeals to social conservatives, in part, because of her stance on traditional family values and abstinence only-education, when one of her own children shows up pregnant, you’re bound to raise a unibrow or two. And I think it is worth discussing.

Secondly, I also have to ask are we glorifying teen pregnancy and now telling teenage girls that it is okay to get pregnant as long as your family supports you and you can take care of the baby? If that is the case, Jamie Lynn Spears is about to become a hero.

And third, if your daughter came home pregnant, what would you do?

Thanks, Bil, for posting that.

Interesting that a conservative should raise the issue of, well, let's call it what it is - Palin's hypocrisy. I just listened to a segment on NPR (not the most reliable indicator of "the nation," given the bullshit it's propounding about the supposed threat from dissenters) and listened to a 17-year-old mother talk nonchalantly about how teen pregnancies were perfectly "normal."

I don't mean this from a right-wing perspective, obviously, but I have to ask: WHAT THE *BLANK* is going on here????

I agree with you when you write: "Questioning her moral stances on issues like abortion while watching how that plays out in her own family is perfectly acceptable. Denigrating her 17 year old daughter for a choice to be sexually active is not."

Two problems, though. a)No matter how we phrase things, it's already clear that any attempt to question the disconnect between Palin's social conservatism and how it plays out in her family will be painted as "personal" and "below-the-belt." That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep making the disconnect clear and linking it to issues like women's rights to abortion and related matters, but it's a tough road ahead.

b) I don't think that either the right or liberals really care to bring up the issue of teenagers being sexually active. Both sides would prefer to bury their heads in their sand and pretend that teenagers don't really have sex unless they're coerced into it - by creepy online predators or by popular culture. I don't know who's denigrating B. Palin for being sexually active (I'm certainly the last one to do so) - but I do think plenty of people are wondering: whatever happened to protection? Or: If she actually wanted to be pregnant at 17, what does that say about what she thinks about her life at this point? Again, that's not to focus on B. Palin but to think out loud about how such revelations prompt us to have public discussions about teen sexuality - or censor them.

Regardless of what actually went on in B. Palin's head or heart, I have to wonder - and worry about -- basic sex ed. Is anyone talking about teens and condoms? Birth control?

I think this thread clearly indicates the difficulties in discussing the Palin family issues in a way that highlights policy issues *without* making it all seem merely personal. The problem is that the Republicans are a lot more practised at hypocrisy than the rest of us. As Alex points out, if the situation had occured in the Obama family, we'd be hearing some very different narratives. Too often, meaningless and mushy rhetoric about family (as opposed to honest discussions about the complexities within families) tends to carry the day.