Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Bristol-Baby Brouhaha

Bristol Palin granted an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on February 18th, 2009, and it has caused a firestorm of criticism from...conservatives. Apparently Bristol is sending the wrong message to teens regarding abstinence. Conservative radio host Bill Bennett even laments her crossing over into, and contributing to, policy debate. But did Bristol really send the wrong message? I suggest that conservative critics have erred by thinking Bristol was addressing teens in her comments. Having raised two teen girls myself, and having heard comments similar to Bristol's many times from them and their peers, I took her comments to be directed to a totally different audience - the very people who are outraged. Let's explore exactly what went down in her sit down with Greta.

First I would like to dispel the notion that Bristol in some way is representing her mother - Governor Sarah Palin, the Alaska executive branch, the Alaska Department of Health, the Alaska Department of Education, or even the Palin family in any way in this interview. Bristol makes it clear that the decision to do the interview was hers and hers alone. She didn't even inform Gov. Palin that she was doing it until the day before. There is no indication that she was prepped by her parents or any other officials or that she was pressured into either giving the interview or say anything she said. True to Palin individualism, this is Bristol's interview and nobody else’s. The idea that her comments somehow impact the policy debate about abstinence is as silly as saying an interview with Jamie Lyn Spears impacts policy. Conservatives (and many liberals including the President) defended the Palin family's right to privacy during the campaign, rightly arguing that the private affairs of a candidate's daughter do not impact the candidate's policy and positions. Funny now how they think the private opinions of a Governor's daughter have some policy or position impact on the Governor's administration. Especially when the daughter clearly states that this interview is with her and about her, not her mother the Governor.

So what did Bristol say that has everyone in a tizzy? At one point, Van Susteren asked a series of question regarding the circumstances which led to Bristol's pregnancy, specifically regarding birth control and abstinence. Here is the exchange:
VAN SUSTEREN: I don't want to pry to personally, but I mean, actually, contraception is an issue here. Is that something that you were just lazy about or not interested, or do you have a philosophical or religious opposition to it or...

BRISTOL: No. I don't want to get into detail about that. But I think abstinence is, like -- like, the -- I don't know how to put it -- like, the main -- everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all.


BRISTOL: Because -- I don't want to get into details on this.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, no, I don't mean personally, just big picture, not -- not necessarily about you, but...

BRISTOL: Because it's more and more accepted now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Among your classmates and kids your age?

BRISTOL: Among -- yes, among kids my age.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you change that?

BRISTOL: To see stories like this and to see other stories of teen moms and just -- it's something that's -- I don't know, just -- you should just wait 10 years and it'd just be so much easier.
Now, when I first read that section of the transcript, I didn't bat an eye. I understand what she means from a teen perspective about abstinence not being realistic and teen sex being accepted. Does that mean she is throwing up her hands regarding abstinence or that she is promoting acceptance of teen sexuality? That seems to be what her critics think. Taking the position that she is addressing teens as a mentor, they decry the lack of a forceful denouncement of her actions and a strong advocacy for abstinence education. There are several errors in this presumptive reaction.

First of all, we must remember that Bristol Palin is still only 18 and is rather embarrassed that she and her boyfriend messed up and got caught in doing so. The rambling nature of her response and the reluctance to go into details shows that she is not at a point in her maturation to face the responsibility of being the next abstinence education poster girl, or any kind of role model for teens. If Bristol had an agenda to get the word out to teens that abstinence is silly and sex is fine, she would have had a far bolder and more coherent response planned. She makes it clear elsewhere in the interview that, despite the joy her son brings to her, getting pregnant at 17 is a bad, bad idea. In fact, her own suggestion that everyone wait for 10 years (presumably after high school) shows she is generally in support of abstinence as a philosophical idea.

Is she in support of abstinence as a practical practice though? I think she is and this is where I believe the critics have misread her. You see, her message is not directed at teens in my opinion, it is directed at parents and educators. Even reading the transcript one can sense the angst she is feeling. What she is saying to those adults listening is "abstinence is really, really hard." In fact, Bristol Palin is not the first but far down a long, long line of girls I know of who had everything going for them in terms of family values, religious convictions, strong self esteem, and loving parental guidance and STILL ended up pregnant before their high school graduation. Bristol is telling us that even with all the advantages she had, it is not enough if the message she gets in the long run is "just say no" to sex. Teens have way too many overpowering influences in their life to have sex, to leave it to simple will-power and ideals to abstain. Bristol's message is this - "if it can happen to me...are you listening parents and curriculum can happen to anyone…ANYONE!" It doesn't mean you are a bad kid and it doesn't mean you think teen sex is "acceptable" and it especially doesn't mean that you didn't want to abstain. It means only that you haven't yet developed the critical decision making skills to cope with sexuality. To tell kids to "just say no" and assume they have the maturity to follow through "in the heat of the moment" is, as Gov. Palin put it, "naive".

Now, does that mean abstinence education can't work? Of course not! But it needs to take a drastically more robust form if it is going to impact a broader range of kids, especially the Bristol Palins of the world who have at least a fighting chance of remaining chaste. Bristol informs us of what we are up against: raging hormones, peer pressure, broad cultural acceptance of promiscuity, and plain old bone-headedness. If we want kids to say "no" to sex, instead of simply telling them that abstinence is the alternative we recommend and prefer, we need to do a far better job of proving to them that abstinence is in their best interests and the best choice for their body, mind, and soul. According to my girls' recounting of the abstinence ed in their high school, we have a long way to go.

(The full, preliminary transcript of the interview can be found here:,2933,494205,00.html)

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