Abortion, teen motherhood, and parental authority.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 5 2008 8:06 AM

Bristol's Body, Sarah's Choice

Abortion, teen motherhood, and parental authority.

Bristol Palin and boyfriend. Click image to expand.
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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

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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."

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