04/04/2008 10:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush Administration and the Politics of "Punishment"

Question for you. I am an African-American female in
my twenties. What would you guess is the leading cause
of death for someone like me? A pretty morbid question
I know, but one worth asking. When most of us think of
someone dying young, we think of circumstances both
unexpected and beyond our control--an accident or in
rare cases an unforeseen and unavoidable illness.

But what if I told you that the leading cause of death
among young black women is AIDS?
If you were unaware of this troubling statistic you
would not be alone. I remember watching the
vice-presidential debate between candidates Cheney and
Edwards in 2004 and listening as they both fumbled
when confronted by moderator Gwen Ifill with a
question about these numbers
. I was reminded of
this moment during the recent pseudo-controversy
surrounding Sen. Barack Obama's comments regarding
sexual education
. During a town
hall in Pennsylvania Sen. Obama said the following:

"When it comes specifically to HIV/AIDS, the most
important prevention is education, which should
include -- which should include abstinence education
and teaching the children -- teaching children, you
know, that sex is not something casual. But it should
also include -- it should also include other, you
know, information about contraception because, look,
I've got two daughters. 9 years old and 6 years old. I
am going to teach them first of all about values and
morals. But if they make a mistake, I don't want them
punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with
an STD at the age of 16. You know, so it doesn't make
sense to not give them information."

Conservatives immediately pounced on the comment,
focusing on Obama's use of the word "punished". While
it's arguable that his word choice could have been
more thoughtful (after all one woman's punishment is
another woman's miracle) his overall message was right
on target, but seemed to get lost in the ensuing

Conservative stalwart Michelle Malkin, well known for
her gift for subtlety and understatement (and yes I am
being sarcastic), weighed in with a blog titled "Obama
and the punishment of unborn life
While this hysteria was not particularly surprising,
it was still disappointing because yet again the
political chattering classes (of which I must now
confess to being a part of) chose to ignore the real
issue at hand in favor of the juicier, more
controversial--and yes sexier--story, even though in
this case that story wasn't really there.

What is clear from Obama's full statement, which not
all media outlets ran (surprise, surprise) is that he
was discussing pregnancy prevention not abortion. This
is not to say that Obama is in line with those who
oppose abortion rights, but it is to say that while
many of us may disagree on the issue of abortion, most
of us can agree that the fewer women forced to make
the choice to have one, the better. That means, in
theory at least, we should be able to find some common
ground on issues such as contraception.

Obama in particular has good reason to worry--and not
just because of the AIDS rates that may face his
daughters when they reach adulthood. According to the
Centers for Disease Control 1 in 4 teen girls ages 14
to 19 has one STD. That's nearly 3 million teens. But among black girls
the numbers are staggering. Nearly half of all black
teen girls have at least one STD.

Proof that President Bush's abstinence only education
solution has worked like a charm.

Perhaps Michelle Malkin and her conservative cohorts
found Obama's comments so disturbing because they are
worried that he won't be able to adequately fill the
current president's oh-so impressive shoes on this
issue. Because with soaring AIDS rates and STDs
plaguing our nation's children, clearly the Bush
administration has set the bar really high.

If we can agree on nothing else, we should be able to
agree that our children deserve better. Haven't they
been punished enough?