Human Nature

Bristol’s Body, Sarah’s Choice

Abortion, teen motherhood, and parental authority.

Bristol Palin with her boyfriend, Levi Johnston

Last week, Democrats approved the first black major-party nominee for president. This week, Republicans countered with their first female nominee for vice president. From race to sex to religion, the circle of opportunity is expanding: John F. Kennedy to Joe Lieberman, Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama, Geraldine Ferraro to Sarah Palin. The story of emancipation marches on.

One category of Americans, however, remains officially subjugated. I’m not talking about the kind of discrimination blacks and women face in this country today. I’m talking about the kind they endured decades and centuries ago: living under the officially approved dominion of another class of human beings. And in this chapter of the American story, Palin isn’t the chattel. She’s one of the owners.

The group of people I’m talking about is maturing minors. Not babies, like Palin’s son Trig, or even small children, like her daughter Piper. A maturing minor is someone already in transition to adulthood, as evidenced most clearly by the ability to produce children of her own. Someone like Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol.

On Monday, Palin and her husband confirmed that Bristol is pregnant. She “came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned,” they explained. “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.”

It’s a bittersweet story of folly and coming of age. Bristol’s boyfriend is 18. He got her pregnant out of wedlock. But Bristol will carry the baby to term, and, according to her parents, the young couple will marry. A boy and a girl made a mistake that has forced them to become a man and a woman. They are, in Palin’s words, shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood.

Yet Palin refuses to treat a young woman in this position as an adult. She thinks the parents of pregnant girls should have veto power over the most life-changing decision their daughters may ever face. Palin made her position clear last fall, when she denounced and sought to reverse an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that upheld the rights of teenage girls. “It is outrageous that a minor girl can get an abortion without parental consent,” said the governor.

The court affirmed that minors often needed guidance, that parents were entitled to provide that guidance, and that states could facilitate this role by notifying parents whose daughters sought abortions. But the law in question, the Alaska Parental Consent Act, went further. It required girls to get their parents’ written consent. If the parents refused, the girl had to go to court. Any doctor who granted an abortion request without parental or court approval faced the threat of criminal prosecution.

These provisions made parents not just stewards of their children, but owners. The justices concluded that the law “allows parents to refuse to consent not only where their judgment is better informed and considered than that of their daughter, but also where it is colored by personal religious belief, whim, or even hostility to her best interests.”

The argument for parental consent laws is that if girls can’t even get their ears pierced without parental approval, they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to get something as serious as an abortion. As Palin’s spokeswoman put it last year, “She feels parental consent is reasonable because it is required in nearly every aspect of a child’s life.” But that logic is backward. The more profoundly a decision affects a girl’s future, the more vital it is that no one, even her parents, be authorized to veto it. And nothing short of death alters a person’s life more profoundly than bringing a child into the world. It is the moment when you cease to be the primary purpose of your own existence.

The Alaska Supreme Court understood this. The “uniquely personal physical, psychological, and economic implications of the abortion decision … are in no way peculiar to adult women,” the justices wrote. Palin, a five-time mother, understands it, too. She says Bristol will “realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child.”

Palin claims the decision was Bristol’s. But had Bristol faced the same predicament a year ago, and had she chosen not to bear the child, her mother would have demanded the right to force that result. As governor, Palin fought for this authority. Two weeks after the Alaska court’s 3-2 ruling against her, she replaced one of the justices in the majority. She called for a state constitutional amendment to reverse the ruling. This year, with the court stacked in her favor, she endorsed a bill that would send the court an even tougher parental consent law. She even proposed a special session to pass the bill.

Watch the video of Palin answering abortion questions during a 2006 gubernatorial debate. “If your daughter were pregnant … what would be your reaction and advice?” asks a reporter. “I would choose life,” she answers, smiling. The reporter persists: What if your daughter had been raped? “Again, I would choose life,” she replies. Not she would choose. I would choose.

John McCain is no different. Eight years ago, after initially saying that his daughter, in the event of pregnancy, would make her own decision with parental counsel, McCain corrected himself. It would be “a family decision, not her decision,” he told reporters. “Cindy and I will make that decision.”

Palin and McCain will hardly suffer politically for asserting such dominion. Parental consent laws are wildly popular. In a press release touting Palin’s selection, Americans United for Life points out that “polling consistently shows that 70% of [the] American public supports these common sense laws.” Why does every poll show broad support for vetoing minors’ decisions? Because minors don’t get polled. They can’t vote.

That’s the way it used to be with blacks and women: You can’t protect yourself when you don’t have the franchise. Look at today’s restrictions on personal freedom. Who’s being banned from tanning salons? Minors. Who’s being blocked from buying junk food? Minors. Who’s being ordered off city streets by 10 p.m.? Minors. They take the hit because they can’t fight back.

But restrictions that start with minors have a way of leaking out. A month ago, junk-food crusaders crossed the line from kids to adults: Los Angeles prohibited construction of new fast-food restaurants in a section of the city occupied by 500,000 low-income people. And last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on some abortions for adult women. The court reasoned that some of these women “did not know” how gruesome the procedure would be and that the ban, by “ensuring so grave a choice is well informed,” would “encourage some women to carry the infant to full term.” Paternalism once reserved for girls now extends to women. McCain and Palin want more justices like Samuel Alito, who voted to uphold a law requiring women to notify their husbands before getting abortions. In fact, they want a constitutional amendment to ban nearly all abortions.

The idea of letting minors, even maturing ones, make abortion decisions may sound radical. But that’s how autonomy for blacks and women used to sound, too. It’s hard to recognize the injustices of your own era. One reason to try is that paternalists may have targeted people like you in the past. The other reason is that if you don’t speak up, they’ll come for you again.