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Palin's Fetal Position

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We really don't need to know anything more about the Sarah Palin celebrity action figure.

We don't need to know where she buys her glasses, when she decided to start wearing her hair in an up-do or how she handles the demands of motherhood and government work.

We don't even need to hear her answers on energy policy, the Iraq war or God's will.

What an awful lot of voters really need to know about Palin may already have been revealed -- years ago -- by one dark and unforgivable policy instituted under her watch as mayor of the small town of Wasilla.

After taking office in 1996, she allowed the town's police department to begin charging rape victims for the forensic work done in their cases. She signed off on the budget that detailed the new police policy -- a directive instituted by her hand-picked police chief after she fired his predecessor. The unexplained reversal in Wasilla's procedure dictated that rape victims, unlike the victims of other crimes, now would have to pay for the investigative work done at the crime scene.

In a rape case, of course, the crime scene is the woman's body.

When Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, the town suddenly started charging rape victims between $300 and $1200 to have the rapist's DNA and other forensic evidence taken, tested, cataloged and investigated.

That meant that women who came to local police for help after being battered, brutalized and victimized, faced one more violation. These women had to pay for the privilege of having their cases treated as crimes.

Palin's then-police chief Charlie Fannon defended this policy with the explanation that he wanted to save taxpayers' money. He said the raped women's insurance policies were billed -- when possible. In those cases, the women only had to pay the deductible. Of course, this being America, many women were uninsured, unprotected from both their attackers and the big bills.

Gee, thanks, guys.

Oddly enough, Fannon did not make the same kind of choice in other criminal cases. He did not make people injured by hit-and-run drivers or mugging victims or the families of murdered men and women cough up money to investigate their cases or collect evidence to catch their attackers.

It only happened in rape cases.

Hmmm.

Now, why would that be?

There is one terrible possibility: that this happened because somebody in charge in Wasilla -- either the police chief or the Mayor or both -- hails from the craziest corner of the pro-life community, the people who believe that birth control is abortion.

These people oppose paying for forensic work in rape cases because as part of that process -- as a final step in a humiliating and dehumanizing procedure -- a woman is typically asked if she would like a "morning after" pill, a medication that will prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of her uterus. The treatment is believed to be about 80% effective in preventing pregnancy.

Sarah Palin has not deigned to take questions from the unwashed masses in the media, but if she ever does, this might be a good place to begin.

Does she believe that giving a rape victim a "morning after" pill is committing murder? Does Palin believe that the taxpayers shouldn't pay for this or that police shouldn't offer this as a matter of course? Does she really believe that a woman should have to bear the child of her rapist?

We already know that's what she would want for her daughter.

During her successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006, Palin declared that she would not choose an abortion for her daughter -- then 14 years old -- even if the girl was raped and became pregnant. "I would choose life," Palin said.

Eric Croft suspects that these pro-life beliefs were the reason behind Wasilla's no pay police policy on rape victims.

He is the Democratic legislator who got the system changed by sponsoring a state proposal in 2000 that required local police departments in Alaska to pay for victims' "rape kits," as the evidence-gathering process is called. He wrote the bill with Wasilla's misguided police procedure in mind.

Croft told me that he was working at the time with a victim support group called "STAR" -- for Standing Together Against Rape. "We kept hearing reports out of the Mat-Su Valley that a police department there was charging for rape kits," Croft says. "We didn't know who it was."

Finally, a rape victim came forward with a copy of her insurance bill, which listed the rape kit charges filed by Wasilla police. Croft says his organization contacted the town's police chief who confirmed the policy but could not be convinced to change it.

Croft says he was dumbfounded. "I thought they'd be shamed out of it. But they weren't. They weren't."

So he proposed a change in state law. As a result, there were public hearings, public testimony and overwhelming public support. The bill passed unanimously. Democratic Governor Tony Knowles made a point of signing the bill into law in front of cameras outside a sexual assault clinic.

The amazing thing is that, through all of this, Palin herself apparently didn't speak publicly, didn't come out for or against her police chief's policy, didn't take responsibility for what her town was doing to already wounded women.

Part of what makes this suspicious is that Wasilla's policy is not the first time rape victims have found themselves in the crosshairs of the country's culture wars over abortion.

In fact, their bodies have long been a battleground.

Right-to-life groups around the country have often stepped into rape cases, fighting to make sure that pharmacists, police and medical personnel don't have to participate in procedures they deem "immoral."

From the Deep South to South Dakota, from Missouri to Arizona, rape victims have too long had to fight for the kind of equality and empathy that other crime victims can regularly expect.

The question of emergency contraception -- who gets it, who pays for it and who gets to decide -- is at the heart of this heated debate.

A few years ago, there was a dustup down here in Texas, when a pharmacist in a Dallas suburb refused to fill a rape victim's prescription for the "morning after" pill, saying that he couldn't dispense the medication "because it ends life." This poor woman had to go to a different pharmacy in order to protect herself in the most personal, most private, most important way possible.

When the story became public, dozens of outraged Texas women showed up outside the pharmacy with signs saying, "Rape violates my morals."

Those same women -- and thousands more who feel the same way -- could be headed for a Republican rally soon if Sarah doesn't start talking.

Her partner in the old policy seems to have gone to ground.

Charles Fannon, the former police chief, now has a disconnected home phone number.

And Sarah Palin seems to be in the process of completely disconnecting herself from the policy.

Palin's spokeswoman, Maria Comella, told USA Today in an e-mail last week that the Governor "does not believe, nor has she ever believed that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test.

"Governor Palin's position could not be more clear. To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice."

According to USA Today, Comilla would not answer other questions, including when Palin learned of Wasilla's policy or whether she tried to change it.

Maybe this is all some kind of unthinkable misunderstanding. Maybe Palin didn't know this was happening, didn't hear about it even the whole state joined the conversation, maybe this tough-talking Mayor couldn't control her police chief.

Maybe she has changed over the years, maybe she now recognizes the immorality of treating rape victims this way.

Whatever the answer -- before we vote -- before we are treated to another story about her taste in shoes or her time as Governor, would someone please pin Palin down and ask her what the hell was going on with rape victims in Wasilla?

And more importantly, why?

This person who says she's prepared to be a heartbeat away from the presidency could clear this whole thing up in a heartbeat.

Why won't she?

When Palin's name was announced as McCain's vice-presidential pick, I initially viewed her as some kind of sop to disgruntled Clinton supporters, somebody who was supposed to appeal to those of us who would rather have seen Hillary at the head of the ticket.

In the campaign, Palin has been presented as a kind of born-again Christian comic book hero -- the ultimate in multi-tasking mothers -- a woman who flies around the country in labor, kills big animals in the woods and dictates the details of other people's lives while juggling babies, Bibles and bullets.

It is beginning to look like she may be something colder, creepier and more complicated.

She has run Alaska like Dick Cheney in drag, a person who thrives on secrecy, loyalty and control.

On foreign policy, she's reminiscent of George W. Bush, without the sparkling curiosity.

And if she worked to deny rape victims emergency contraception, she is women voters' worst nightmare -- she is Phyllis Schlaffly with PMS, power and an automatic weapon.

It is long past time to figure out who Sarah Palin really is.

Getting answers on how and why she allowed her hometown to adopt a policy towards crime victims that was so beyond the pale, so outside the bounds of human decency, so heartless is a good place to begin.

In the end, it may be all we need to know.

Like Sarah Palin, I believe in the power of prayer.

I am praying that reporters can pull themselves out of the fetal position and start asking Palin some hard questions -- about hers.