Don't Let a Tough Campaign Mess with Your Head -- Cases in Point: The Palin Pregnancies

10/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Well, America now knows about Bristol Palin's pregnancy. A family statement indicates that the 17-year-old is about five months pregnant, will keep the baby, and will marry the father. The announcement more-or-less puts to rest the weird rumors flying around the blogosphere -- today reported by major newspapers -- that Sarah Palin's infant Trig was actually her daughter's.

I've been hearing this stuff since Palin was selected. Many people have. To their credit, virtually everyone in the liberal blogosphere refused to traffic in these rumors. Now that we know the rumors are unfounded, we should note three lessons:

The Palin pregnancies are not campaign issues -- they just aren't.

We should wish the Palins well personally, and then move on to the real issues: health care, Iraq, tax relief to working families. Every moment we spend on personal issues distracts attention from Palin's odd or nonexistent views on key policy issues, from Senator McCain's poor judgment in selecting a running mate so obviously unprepared to be President, and most important, from Senator McCain's misguided approach to America's future at home and abroad.

America must do a far better job preventing teen pregnancy, and in addressing the reality that most teenagers become sexually active before we, their parents, wish them to be.

Bristol Palin puts only one beautiful young face on a widespread problem. Ironically it is a problem her mother would make far more difficult to solve were her extreme socially conservative policy positions enacted into law.

Sixty-five percent of American youth lose their virginity in high school. More than half of high school seniors are sexually active -- with every bit the care and planning that one associates with the hormonally addled teen mind. Although these numbers vary by culture, race/ethnicity, and other factors, teenagers from pretty much every religious and cultural community exhibit high rates of teen sexual activity and its various consequences.

In my public health career, I have learned (and re-learned) that risk-taking for comfort, excitement, or pleasure is a symptom of our humanity. So many things can brighten our lives, but can also hurt us: Smoking, fast-driving, grazing the vending machine, being intimate with the wrong person at the wrong time. Risk-taking and pleasure-seeking are almost the definition of adolescence.

Unfortunately, our nation's culture provides a toxic combination of an eroticized popular and commercial culture and a highly prudish conversation about what is really going on. Advertisers bombard our kids with soft-core porn to sell everything from deodorant to pants to soft drinks. In so many ways, we say: Just do it!

But then we add the guilty subtext: But whatever you do, don't plan for it. Don't talk about it. Don't turn to responsible adults if you have questions or problems. Our role as adults in your life is to be uncomfortable and disappointed, or to pretend it's not happening. Northern Europe handles these issues differently. Their teens have sex, too. Yet they ruin their lives much less often.

Abstinence-only education may be the least-successful intervention I have ever seen. A recent randomized evaluation finds that such programs have literally zero estimated impact on teen abstinence, age of sexual debut, condom use, or the number of sexual partners among sexually-active youth. Over repeated objections of the public health community, state and federal authorities spend large amounts on these interventions, while more valuable interventions go unfunded.

We can -- and should -- try to delay sexual activity until youth have the maturity and experience to handle sexuality wisely. So many young teens have sex in pretty crummy relationships that do not serve them well. To be understated, I'm not overjoyed that my daughters will be dating high school guys whose views about women are shaped by raunchy music videos.

Yet we must understand that even the good interventions boast pretty modest success in delaying sexual activity. So we must arm our children with the knowledge, the skills, the life options, and the family planning services to make sure that a moment of foolish pleasure does not derail a lifetime. We hope that our kids -- our daughters, in particular -- never feel that they have to do something crazy with pills, a razor, or a coat hanger to escape the resulting jam. We hope that they never do something stupid because they can't bear to face us to pay $500 or to have us sign some parental notification form.

We can't let a tough campaign mess up our heads.

Factually, politically, and morally, it never made much sense to chase rumors that Governor Palin was covering for her teen daughter's pregnancy.

Yeah, Governor Palin is 44, but we're not exactly talking about Abraham and Sarah here. Ladies with four children are known to have another. Among those who choose not to terminate pregnancies, the incidence of Down Syndrome among infants born to 44-year-olds is vastly higher than the incidence among infants born to teenagers. There's more, but that's beside the point.

Then there's the more basic question: So what if the rumor was true? Moms sometimes do things like that in a pinch for their daughters. I don't know about you, but I don't mind being lied to about a painful family secret that's none of my business anyway. I bet many Americans feel the same way. From an entirely political perspective, Palin will probably emerge as a disastrous pick. Many commentators have noted that her only shot at helping the McCain ticket arises if Democrats are seen as bullying or belittling her. We can't play into that.

Finally, we just can't let this race jar loose our moral compasses. If this were any other context, we would all realize that people's minor children are out of bounds. The way that women manage their pregnancies and balance their work and family lives is out of bounds, too, even when that includes dicey matters with a teenage daughter.

Sure, Karl Rove might have trafficked in this stuff. That's not us. And, as Megan points out over at Jezebel, it shouldn't be.

Bloggers who traffic in this stuff discredit themselves. They also create an opening for Republicans to tar the rest of us with this thing. We need to remember that Democrats are better than that. That's not just me talking. Here is what Senator Obama said about this story.

I have said before and I will repeat again, I think people's families are off limits, and people's children are especially off limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics, it has no relevance to governor Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. And so I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18. And how [a]family deals with issues and teenage children that shouldn't be the topic of our politics and I hope that anybody who is supporting me understands that is off limits.

.... Our people were not involved in any way in this and they will not be. And if I ever thought it was somebody in the campaign that was involved in something like that they would be fired.

That's the only sane reaction. Message discipline, common sense, and common decency all point in the same direction here.

We're in for a roller-coaster ride over the next eight weeks. We'll be tempted to cut some corners. We must remember that there is a right way and a wrong way to wage a tough campaign. Senator Obama gave a tough, direct speech in Denver that, as Joe Klein put it, got right in Senator McCain's grill. That's how to do it.

As for Palin's wacky views about global warming, Alaskan secession, and the flag pledge....these are fair game.