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.
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.