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.