The liberal media is under-reporting the personal life of Sarah Palin and her children, complains the conservative Media Research Center—at least, that was their complaint in May. “The national news rarely covers much from Alaska,” Tim Graham wrote in an “Omission Watch,” adding, “but this story also has a heartwarming pro-life angle, which offers a political reason for the media to go whistling past it.”
This was, of course, before Governor Palin was tapped to be the GOP vice-presidential nominee. And Graham was not referring to the dramatic news of seventeen-year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, but, instead, how Sarah Palin “proved she’s pro-life by personal example … [by giving] birth to a son with Downs syndrome and announc[ing] her delight at God’s blessing.” Conservatives politicized the infant at the governor’s urging, telling reporters after his birth that she and her husband have “both been very vocal about being pro-life. We understand that every innocent life has wonderful potential.” Just last week, the Christian Coalition repeated this quote in their press release applauding Palin’s nomination.
Even with scandal swirling around Bristol’s pregnancy, abortion opponents have not been shy about using the infant as a living emblem of their cause. “We already know that John McCain is pro-life while Obama is pro-choice but there’s a new factor: Trig Paxson Van Palin, the infant son of the governor, who has Down syndrome,” wrote Timothy Shriver today for Newsweek. “Trig could be a game changer. ”
With her daughter’s pregnancy in the spotlight, Palin and her allies now want to drop the media curtain over her family: “We ask the media to respect our daughter and [father] Levi’s privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates.” Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters that her pro-life boss believes “that this is a private family matter” for the Palin family.
Bristol’s pregnancy has conservatives twisting all kinds of pretzels on the privacy issue. Speaking on Fox News yesterday, John McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer told America that she is the mother of five, an oddly personal fact for a campaign advisor to share on national television. What made it even weirder was that she made this disclosure while arguing that the Palins’ family life shouldn’t be in the media. “I have five teenagers myself,” she told Fox News host Megyn Kelly. “We have all had to deal with this at some point in our extended family…. it’s a private personal matter.”
While Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus is no fan of Palin’s stands on reproductive rights, she, too, grounds her analysis of the pregnancy story in her moral authority as a mother. “I have two daughters back home, 11 and 13 - close enough to Bristol’s age that I cannot comfort myself that her situation is a far-off irrelevance,” she writes. And while Marcus expresses sympathy for the Palin family, she rejects the notion that they are entitled to privacy on this matter: “Like it or not, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is intertwined with an important public policy debate about which the two parties differ and on which Sarah Palin has been outspoken.” Marcus says she plans to use this situation as an opportunity to “teach the muddled message that is the only one that makes sense to me in the messy modern world: Wait, please. But whenever you choose to have sex, don’t do it without contraception.”
Abortion-rights advocates have long argued that privacy is at the crux of the abortion issue, and some find it ironic that the GOP is now arguing that Bristol’s pregnancy is a “private matter.” “Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is at the heart of what women and the right wing have been fighting over for thirty years, and it isn’t abortion, it’s privacy and the right to control your own reproductive choices,” writes Jane Smiley on Huffington Post. “Sarah Palin and her church and her pastor have made themselves abundantly clear on issues of reproductive privacy - there won’t be any.”
A family that politicized its children in one setting now wants privacy in another, while a party that has long rejected abortion-rights activists’ claims that reproductive freedoms spring from a right to privacy are now demanding privacy for Bristol Palin’s choice. A feminist friend of mine was so exasperated that she wrote, “Am I in a twilight zone or something? Republicans are running around saying pregnancy is a private family matter and that people can sometimes make mistakes? I don’t understand this; I think I should go back to bed.”Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.