Anti-Abortion or Anti-Sex?

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The news that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnson have split up has been confirmed for a few days now, and so far, I haven't heard any conservative outrage directed at this very public unwed mother who chose to bring a child into the world without benefit of heterosexual marriage. Perhaps the response has been muted because Palin is the child of someone who ran for office and never asked to be in the spotlight herself, and the decent way to treat the family of public officials is to withhold comment on their private lives. Maybe, but I'm skeptical. The worldview of the far right tends not to run along the lines of "live and let live."

No, more likely it's because to the base of her mother's party, it's not that important whether she gets married or not. To the far right, the error she made was not that she had unprotected sex, but that she was unmarried and had sex at all. To them, she did the right thing: She suffered the consequences of her carnal desires by having a baby ten years, by her own admission, before it would have been optimal to have kids. There's been no outcry because she played by the rules, or at least their rules.

This is hard for observers on the left, who have long labored to find middle ground with adamant pro-lifers, to understand. Progressives look at a teenage girl who gets knocked up by her teenage boyfriend and think, "This is sad, as well as further proof that, as the girl admitted herself, abstinence alone isn't realistic." They might even point out, as the Chicago Tribune did in a recent piece, that the decision to have a baby in such cases is likely to lead to considerable challenges to both mother and child, since less than eight percent of teen girls marry the baby's father within a year of its birth. And when they do, the marriage has half the chance of succeeding that it would if the girl were at least 25. To people who focus on the quality of an individual's life, it makes sense to focus on prevention.

But to right-wing ideologues, the debate begins and ends with the sinful act of sex outside of marriage, which can lead to only one outcome: punishment. Why else would it be so difficult to reach consensus about the failure of abstinence education, and the vital necessity of spreading information about birth control? A facile argument that many pro-lifers have used in the past is that if you tell teens how to stay safe during sex, you're encouraging them to have it. This, despite numerous reports, including a recent one in the Journal of Adolescent Health, showing that teens who receive sex education are far more likely to delay intercourse until after they turn 15. And countless studies make clear that abstinence-only education doesn't decrease the likelihood that teens will have sex before marriage, and that when they do, they're more likely to become pregnant or infected with an STD.

Why else would conservatives such as Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio State Secretary and current senior fellow at the Family Research Council, adamantly refuse to concede on MSNBC's "Hardball" the other day that practicing birth control is a good way to prevent abortions? His response to the suggestion that conservatives and progressives can at least find commonality on this point was that "We want to teach people, culturally, that what differentiates us from a lot of other species is the human will. So, we tell young people, look, we don't think you can control yourself. Therefore, use a contraceptive. How is that enforcing the human will?" In other words, the whole concept of prevention is irrelevant. You play, you pay.

Certainly, not everyone who wants to "protect unborn life" feels this way. Some leaders -- most notably evangelical pastor Jim Wallis -- have publicly talked about the link between birth control and avoiding unwanted pregnancies. I have to assume that they care more about reducing abortions than they do about reducing the number of unmarried people who have sex.

In any event, it's important for progressives to keep their eyes and minds open when they argue with their ideological opponents. If pro-lifers won't even consider the option of educating kids on how to avoid pregnancy, it's possible that they're just paying lip service to wanting to stop "the life of an innocent baby [from] being taken," in Blackwell's words. More likely, what they really want is to return to the lily-white, less-complicated "Leave it to Beaver" world they feel our culture left behind -- a world that, just like the promise of a long, happy future for the Palin-Johnson family, never really existed in the first place.