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Barefoot and Pregnant in the White House: Sarah and Bristol Palin [3 September, 2008]

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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: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor, about her years as an abortion doctor tells us that the 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.

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 3 September, 2008. You can read the comments here.


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