Miss Conceptions, Confirmed

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 15 2008 7:35 AM

Miss Conceptions, Confirmed

Sarah Palin spent her first days as John McCain's running mate being pounded over her daughter Bristol's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In this predicament, critics saw Puritan hypocrisy, maternal neglect, and the predictable consequences of abstinence-only education.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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There are many good grounds for criticizing Palin. This isn't one of them. The only reason we know about Bristol's pregnancy is that she's taking it to term. If she had aborted it, we'd never have known. Last month, I counted up the daughters of previous presidential and vice-presidential nominees going back to 1964. Of these, 37 were between the ages of 17 and 30 when their parents ran for national office. Based on unintended-pregnancy rates in this age group among higher-income families, I said it was almost inconceivable that "none of these young women got knocked up before their parents' nominations or elections." From the data, I inferred that at least one of them had probably had an abortion.

Readers and bloggers pounced on this inference, calling it unwarranted, perverted, and sexist. Call it whatever you want. It's now confirmed.

Actually, the evidence has been available for a while. It just didn't show up in Nexis, and the two best sources weren't searchable online. Fifteen years ago, Lee Edwards, who had worked on Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, interviewed Goldwater's daughter Joanne for a biography of the senator. Based on the interview, he reported that in 1955, when Joanne, "not yet twenty and still in school, became pregnant with the child of her intended husband and told her father that she did not want to have the child, Goldwater said, 'I'll take care of it.' He arranged for Joanne to fly back to Washington and have a then-illegal abortion."

Two years ago, Zeitgeist Films released Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater , a documentary produced and narrated by C.C. Goldwater , the senator's granddaughter. In it, Joanne Goldwater tells the story :

I was getting engaged. ... It was actually in the Christmas of 1955. And in January, I—I found out that I was pregnant. And I had planned—I had planned this engagement party and a wedding. And—we had—we had planned to have children. We both were still in school. I was getting my degree. And I—I wasn't ready to have a child. And I got an abortion. ... And this was when it was just totally forbidden and very, very dangerous. And young girls were dying by trying it themselves. My father, being conservative, he felt that the government should not decide what women do with their bodies or anything else, you know. The government should stay out of all that. My mother started Planned Parenthood in Arizona in the '30s. And that's why I felt that it was easy to go to them and tell them. And they were very, very supportive.

Why didn't Joanne Goldwater get the Bristol Palin treatment in 1964? Because nobody knew she'd been pregnant. And the reason they didn't know is that she and her parents got rid of the problem.

The point isn't that abortion should be legal or illegal. The point is to exercise humility before accusing somebody else of bad parenting or a dysfunctional family. Was Joanne Goldwater's mom, a founder of Planned Parenthood of Arizona, a bad parent? Do you imagine that she taught her daughter abstinence-only? And how about Goldwater himself? If Palin can be judged by a daughter's pregnancy, why can't he? Shouldn't dads be held to the same standard? And shouldn't parents be held accountable for their sons, too?

You don't know how many of your friends or your friends' daughters have been pregnant. Unless they carry the baby to term or tell you about the abortion or the miscarriage, you just don't know. So before you open your mouth about the Palins, remember the Goldwaters.

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