The revelation that the 17 year old daughter of Sarah Palin is pregnant has been greeted with a chorus of calls to pretend that the matter is a private family matter that has no bearing upon which ticket to choose for our next administration. The opposite is true; the out-of-wedlock pregnancy within what has become the most prominent social traditionalist family -- one whose mother could soon be a step away from the presidency -- is a window into the practical efficacy of the conservative life style that the right wants the nation as a whole to adopt.
Assuming the young Palin is not happy about being thrust into the limelight and is therefore the victim of the publicity, the first question that needs to be addressed is who is responsible for that public awareness. The Repubs are being classically and typically cynical when they proclaim that the affair is out of bounds, and blame the press and Dems for discussing it. If the parents really did not want their affairs to be a subject of public discourse they should have declined the invitation to become the nation’s second family. They and McCain knew full well it would become a major topic when he issued the invitation, and that their operatives would disingenuously denounce any move by the opposition to comment on the larger meaning of the 17 years old’s condition. The Repubs know what they are doing -- if there is one thing the right is good at is taking what seems to be a negative and turning it into a positive while denouncing those who dare speak otherwise. It is a standard Karl Rovian tactic. Sure enough they are actively spinning the story as a wonderful example of how a young woman chose not to take the abortion route, and is owning up to the responsibility by planning to marry the father. They pushed this theme all the way to having the husband-in-waiting join his wife-to-be at the St Paul convention, exactly opposite what they would have done if they really want to protect the young Palin’s privacy. The situation is further being exploited by encouraging the sense that Sarah Palin is a typical wife and mother who understands the typical foibles of modern middle class life. Because the right is mining this self proclaimed sinful failure within a prominent conservative family to follow traditional chastity to promote traditional values, then those with differing views do not have to shut up either. Besides, what happens when some secularist liberal women, especially a teen, most of all when from Hollywood, is heavy with child outside holy matrimony? The right wing moralists and pundits loudly censure her for setting yet another bad example for the public at large as the nation’s ethics go to hell in a handcart. But when one of their own trips up the right demands that all others respect her feelings and privacy, and express bewildered shock at the notion that it might have something to tell us about this societal issue. In other words conservatives are doing all they can to be able to bash liberal nonmarital pregnancy while protecting conservative nonmarital pregnancy. This is a game the right cannot be allowed to control.
I am not in this space going to go into the political-electoral implications for McCain’s out of the box choice of Palin in view of the family pregnancy, this is a look at the social-political implications. Palin, like many traditionalists, is an advocate of a set of faith-based ideological concepts that supposedly promote “family values” that minimize societal dysfunctions including abstinence-only sex education, zero tolerance for sex outside of marriage, an end to legal abortion, extreme reductions use of contraceptives and divorce rates, and a ban on gay marriage in favor of the patriarchal heterosexual version. If these ideas really were effective at dealing with social ills like sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, abortion and failed marriages, then theoconservatives should enjoy low levels of these social ills.
I and other researchers have published an extensive set of statistical studies that show that the traditionalist world-view actually performs poorly compared to progressive alternatives. Among 1st world nations theoconservative opinions and policies, including abstinence only sex-ed, are widespread only in the US. In other advanced democracies teen sex is treated as a medical rather than a moral issue best addressed by intensive and explicit sex education that emphasizes condom use. Marriage is fading as an institution. Yet it is America that still suffers from epidemic levels of syphilis and especially gonorrhea infections, sometimes literally hundreds of times higher than some European countries where the diseases are nearly extinct. No other western country matches America in levels of teen pregnancy outside of marriage, and abortion. Divorce rates among married couples are very high in the US, being matched only in Sweden. Trends within the US show a similar pattern. Divorce is rampant among born-again evangelical couples and in red states, and levels of STDs, abortions and youth pregnancy are similarly excessive.
Why is theoconservative ideology failing to produce better results? Surveys show that the traditionalist third of the American population thinks nonmarital sex is immoral, but some 80% of them still do it (95% of Americans as a whole have sex outside of marriage). Because social conservatives are not well prepared to use protection when it is called for, adverse consequences are frequent. Europeans are not more sexually active than Americans, but they are much more prone to use condoms. Because there are enormous numbers of reproductive age women, because these women are human beings who frequently get pregnant with out wanting to, and because a large portion of the latter are unwilling to go through with the pregnancy, abortion has always been common regardless of whether it is legal and safe or illicit and dangerous. If Palin’s daughter’s ability to chose whether or not to utilize the procedure is ended in the US as her mother wants, then the number who will get abortions will remain around 1 million a year, similar to before Roe versus Wade. This is all the more true because an underground abortion drug market is sure to develop. Do not imagine adoption offers a solution, there is no demand for a million babies a year. Patriarchal marriage skews the power relationship so far towards the husband that aging wives are highly vulnerable to spousal adultery, abandonment and impoverishment. In other cases wives become discontented with their secondary roles and bolt. Only a few thousand evangelicals have taken the opportunity to wed under the covenant marriage laws intended to discourage divorce in three red states, revealing that for all their talk about familial fidelity conservatives are more interested in retaining the freedom to move on than they are willing to admit. There is far more enthusiasm among gays who wish to marry in the two states that allow it than in right wingers for divorce resistant wedlock. That’s one reason why traditionalists want to expunge same sex unions – it makes the failings of the conservative way of life all the more obvious. The well of right-wing hypocrisy on sex and marriage is a deep one. Denouncing the post war rise in divorce was a leading theoconservative theme – until Ronald Reagan became their leading icon and then the first divorcee president. The current Republican nominee was a notorious womanizer who committed adultery with the future wife two who currently would be First Lady. When you get down to it the problem of the right is that they have already lost the Culture War, to the extent that they have to accommodate to it while denying that they are doing so. The pre-rock and roll society and the Hayes Code are not coming back, much less the Victorian era and the ruthless Comstock Laws. So they nominate and elect divorcees, love their gay children, and make the best they can of teen pregnancies within their families. The chronic tendency of conservatives to accommodate their own failings is unavoidable – conservatives are human beings who will never live up to their own expectations so they have to gloss over the stream of slip ups – and the resulting inconsistency of their chronic do-what-we-say-not-what-we-actually-do practices cannot help but sabotage the ability of the movement to get people to actually follow their moral code.
The teen pregnancy within the Palin brood is a real America example of how the social policies advocated by the wife of the family are not working. The McCain-Palin campaign has given the country the opportunity to take at hard look at why conservative America is not doing as well as more progressive cultures concerning issues related to sex in and outside of marriage. This is not likely to bode well for the traditionalist world-view, which is already in demographic trouble. Surveys by PEW, Zogby and other organizations show that America is becoming increasingly socially tolerant in the manner that has already decreased social ills in more liberal nations.
Gregory Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” Journal of Religion and Society (2005), 5, http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html. Also see Michael Shermer “Bowling for God,” Scientific American (2006) 12: 44, www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=D27BB754-E7F2-99DF-3E2F8A28942743F5.
Gregory Paul, “Abstinence: a Sound Choice, But it Won't Stop Youth Sex.” Washington Post (2002) 6/1.
Gregory Paul, “The Gays Are Winning: Why That Spells Doom for the Religious Right” (2008), www.opednews.com/articles/The-Gays-Are-Winning--Why--by-Gregory-Paul-080624-910.htmlStudies showing that the progressive sexual mores are producing superior results to abstinence unless married ideology here and abroad include the following. C. Panchaud et al. “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Adolescents in Developed Countries,” Family Planning Perspectives (2000) 32, 24-32; S. Singh and J. Darroch “Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: Levels and Trends in Developed Countries,” Family Planning Perspectives (2000), 32, 14-23; K. Wellings et al. “Sexual behavior in context: A global perspective,” Lancet (2006) 368,1706-1728; L. Finer “Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” Public Health Reports (2007) 122, 73-78 details the numbers on who is really doing what; Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner, 2001 “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology (2001)106, 859-912 and “The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood.” National STD Conference (2004), www.iserp.columbia.edu/people/faculty_fellows/faculty/curiculum_vitae/bearman.pdf. Minnesota Department of Health, “Final Evaluation of the Minnesota Education Now and Babies Later Program,” (2004), www.saynotyet.com/pdfs/eval-report/enabl-report-doc.pdf; B. Trenholm (2007) “Impacts of Four Title V Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs (Report to Congress), www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications?PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf. John Gagnon et al. “A Comparative Study of the Couple in the Social Organization of Sexuality in France and the United States.” Journal of Sex Research (2001) 38, 24-34 show how little difference there is between the two nations. L. Bennett (2007) The Feminine Mistake. New York: Voice discusses the flawed nature of evangelical marriage.
PEW Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007, people-press.org/reports/display.php3?Report ID=312. J. Zogby (2008) The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, New York: Random House. J. Judis and R. Texeira (2002) The Emerging Democratic Majority, New York: Lisa Drew Books.