Bristol Palin Sarah Palin’s 19-year-old-daughter and unwed mother of 4-month-old Tripp has been blog-blistered this week for her debut as an Abstinence Ambassador for the Candies Foundation. She made the rounds of the morning shows, appeared at a town hall meeting for National Teen Pregnancy Awareness Day and declared herself committed to discouraging behavior that would leave other girls in the same predicament she finds herself in. “Regardless of what I did personally,” she told Chris Cuomo on Good Morning America, “abstinence is the only … 100% foolproof way you can prevent pregnancy.”
Charges of hypocrisy ignited immediately: it was all just “a clear bid to help Mama rise higher in the Republican Party,” said Fox News contributor Ellen Ratner. “It doesn’t look good for a future presidential hopeful to have a daughter who had a child and did not marry the dad. They had to re-brand Bristol Palin so that she fits into the conservative base.” It was a mixed message, others charged: “Don’t have sex as a teenager, but if you do, you might end up a happy celebrity with this beautiful baby.” Still others disqualified her from preaching abstinence having clearly not practiced it herself, even though this is entirely in keeping with America’s standard Redemption Narrative. We pay much more attention to the sermons of sinners, which is why schools invite former drug addicts to come talk to kids about peer pressure, and Arlen Specter, after 29 years as a Republican Senator, was welcomed with open arms into the enemy camp.
But you could argue that the true hypocrisy is what came before, at that very political pageant, the Republican National Convention, in which the Palin family, including alleged fiancé Levi Johnston, was presented as a somewhat sprawling Norman Rockwell portrait. There the messaging was simple: our daughter is pregnant; she chose not to abort the baby; she will be marrying the father and finishing school, and we will all live happily ever after.
Except that life is much messier and all the odds were against them, and in a real sense it diminishes Bristol’s challenge, and her clear determination to meet it, to pretend otherwise. Only 4 in 10 teenage mothers finish high school; less than 2% of girls who have babies under 18 will finish college by the time they are 30; just waiting until 20 or 21 increases the odds fourfold. Two thirds of families of young unwed mothers are poor. When pregnant teens do marry, they are 50% more likely to get divorced than those who marry without being pregnant.
Bristol’s main message as she stepped out this week was only partially about abstinence. It was more about parenthood: that it is hard, and exhausting, and bittersweet to hold your blessed child in your arms and wonder at him, while knowing that your friends are at the movies, and your term paper is due, and everything that was supposed to be normal right now is hovering just out of your reach. “I’m just here to tell teens this is a really hard job,” Bristol told Matt Lauer. “It’s not like an accessory on your hip. It’s hard work.”
As for abstinence, Bristol has been right all along. She was right back in February when she said it was “not realistic,” she is right now when she says practicing it is hard, and she’s right that it is much better and safer for kids to postpone having sex. She also advocates that kids who have sex should use contraception. This has always been the embedded irony of the fight over sex education. The increased emphasis on abstinence in the past 15 years has been one factor in pushing back the age at which kids have their first sexual encounters, reducing the number of partners they have and lowering both the teen abortion rates and pregnancy rates . The problem with Abstinence Only education was not the Abstinence, it was the Only. The most effective message, as evidenced in every other industrial country with teen pregnancy rates far lower than ours, is to advocate postponement of sexual activity while providing full and complete information on contraception, decision-making and disease prevention. Which is why the President’s just released budget ends funding for programs that restrict the discussion to abstinence alone.
This message isn’t hard; it just isn’t as tidy as Just Do It or Just Say No. So Bristol Palin, in all her complexity as target and role model, sitting there with the beautiful baby she wishes hadn’t been born for another 10 years, is a perfectly natural messenger.
See TIME’s pictures of the week.