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Do as We Do

Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter will have a baby. Here’s why you may not want yours to do the same.

Bristol Palin, holding brother Trig

On Monday, just three days into her campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin announced that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is about five months pregnant. Bristol has “decided to have the baby,” the press release said, and marry the father, a 17-year-old student named Levi Johnston. I’m so old I can remember when this was common. At least two of my classmates at Shaker Heights High School in 1962 also “chose” to marry their teenage beaus and have babies instead of, you know, going to college. 

It’s been a while since I heard of many other 17-year-old middle-class girls making that decision. I’ve heard it almost not at all, actually, since 1973 when the Supreme Court extended constitutional protection to a woman’s decision of “whether to bear or beget a child.” About half the teen pregnancies in the United States now end in abortion. But Sen. McCain says “Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned … returning the abortion question to the individual states” where pro-life groups “can help build the consensus necessary to end abortion at the state level.”

Gov. Sarah Palin is also “pro-life. With the exception of a doctor’s determination that the mother’s life would end if the pregnancy continued.” If Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin win the election and keep their promise to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, and if they subsequently pursue state or federal legislation criminalizing abortion, most teenage girls will no longer have the choice that’s been given to Bristol Palin. Once Roe is gone, the daughters of others will be forced to do what Bristol is doing. Whether they want to or not.

We are hearing a good deal of talk about how we must not be judgmental about young Palin’s choice. But that shouldn’t preclude us from talking about what the world might look like when the only choice teenage girls have is to bear and beget a child. The prospects of a 17-year-old mother in America are not too “private” to warrant scrutiny, especially when John McCain and Sarah Palin would fight for a world in which there are more of them.

The fact sheets from the well-respected National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy describe a bleak prospect: Even controlling for social and economic backgrounds, only 40 percent of teenage girls who bear children before age 18 go on to graduate from high school, compared with the 75 percent of teens who do not give birth until ages 20 or 21. Less than 2 percent of mothers who have children before age 18 will earn a college degree by age 30, compared with 9 percent of young women who wait until age 20 or 21 to have children.

Overall, teenage mothers—and their children—are also far more likely to live in poverty than females who don’t give birth until after age 20. Two-thirds of the families begun by a young unmarried mother are poor. These families are more likely to be on welfare and to require publicly provided health care. Eighty percent of these young mothers do not marry, and they will get almost no support from the fathers, who are usually also poor.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that even if teen mothers do marry, the odds they will divorce are vastly higher than among other populations. On his MySpace page, since removed from the Internet, Palin’s soon-to-be husband, Levi Johnston, describes himself as a “f****n’ redneck” and reveals: “I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing.” That may illuminate why, after 10 years, 48 percent of marriages by brides under 18 have ended. Only 24 percent of brides married at age 25 or older are so fated. Right or wrong, the data show there is such a thing as “too young.”

Also, using seven months as a marker for a premarital pregnancy, having a baby within the first seven months of marriage raises the odds of divorce in every ethnic group. Black and Hispanic couples who marry when pregnant are twice as likely to divorce as couples who marry when the bride is not pregnant; non-Hispanic whites are 50 percent more likely to divorce if the bride is pregnant than if they marry before conception. When polled, male teenagers are less supportive of having babies outside of marriage than female teens are. In the one part of the MySpace site about children, prospective father Levi Johnston wrote, “I don’t want kids.”

Statistically, the children of teen mothers aren’t all that well-off, either. More of their mothers smoke. The babies are more likely to be smaller at birth, suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect, and do poorly in school. They are also likelier to go to prison and to have teen pregnancies themselves, to stay back a grade, to be involved in violence, to go to foster care.

Of course, there are exceptions. When grandparents are closely involved, as the Palins doubtless will be, they can provide the income and support most unmarried mothers lack, or they can shore up their daughters’ fragile marriages. But just because there are examples of successful outcomes does not mean it’s a good idea. The odds are with the house. Otherwise, there would be no casinos in Las Vegas.

McCain and Palin’s commitment to turn the legal clock back to Shaker Heights, circa 1962, also flies in the face of ordinary biology. Men and women today marry, on average, four to five years later than did their counterparts in the 1950s. As a result of later marriage, earlier menstruation, and earlier age of first sex, on average, teens today begin having sex approximately eight to 10 years before marriage.

Sex happens. As near as anyone can judge, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol was raised in a loving, intact family. There is no obvious sociopathology in view. Maybe her teen pregnancy was attributable to a moment of inattention, or ignorance, or just a warm spring night. That she would get pregnant at all reminds us that any teenage girl is at risk. That moment of risk will now determine the course of much of the rest of Bristol Palin’s life, and every statistical indicator is that it will not be for the better. For the millions of women each year who do not want to make that choice, and for the parents who do not want that fate for their daughters, the cruelty of the Republican position on abortion rights is now graphically laid bare.