09/01/2008 05:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Unpacking Sarah Palin: Own Choice, No Choice, Bad Choices

As the American people learn more about the person John McCain believes is the best choice to be one (72 year old cancer survivor's) heartbeat away from the Presidency, it can be hard to unpack the complicated, intersecting story lines that are Sarah Palin.

The narrative airing on cable news today is tentatively heroic: it's about the woman who chose to keep her Down child and who is choosing to support her daughter, who in turn is choosing to continue her own, unwanted pregnancy and choosing to marry the father.

Another possible narrative, though, tells a very different story: that of a woman who (bravely) kept her Down child but (dictatorially) would force all other women to do the same; of an extremely conservative Christian who favors abstinence-only education of the type that appears to have led to her unwed daughter's pregnancy; of a politician who would obligate all American families to make the same choices, and bear the same consequences, that her family has.

Sarah Palin's story involves choices and non-choices -- her family's, John McCain's, and ours:

Palin's Own Choice: Palin is fervently pro-life, believing Roe v. Wade should be overturned and that abortion, which she calls an "atrocity," should be illegal even when the mother is underage and in cases of rape or incest. To the extent she is striving to impose those views on other women, they are dangerous. But when limited to the reproductive choices she has made solely for herself, they are worthy of respect.

Palin, already mother of four children, learned in 2007 that she was pregnant again -- and then that her unborn child had Down Syndrome. Despite knowing the difficulties she and her child would face and the demands that a Down infant would place on her family and on her career, Palin made the choice -- the personal choice -- to have the child. Trig Palin was born just over four months ago, on April 18.

Many women have made the same choice; many other women would have terminated the pregnancy. Neither group is nobler or righter than the other. But every person who lives her values with integrity - who, for instance, is sincere enough about her opposition to abortion that she carries a problematic pregnancy to term -- is worthy of praise. So all of us -- whether politically pro-choice or anti-choice -- can respect and approve Palin's personal choice to live according to her principles.

No Choice: On the other hand, we can't forget that Palin does not believe other women should be afforded the same choice she had -- not even, apparently, her unwed 17-year-old daughter Bristol.

Today, Palin announced that Bristol is pregnant. A press release by Sarah and Todd Palin today says, "We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby...." It also refers to "Bristol and the young man she will marry." (The father is identified only as "Levi.")

Here's a question: how much free choice did the daughter of a fervently pro-life, conservative (formerly Catholic, then Pentecostal) Christian politician have, whether with regard to continuing her pregnancy or to marrying, at age 17 or 18, the child's father?

Palin suggested the answer to that question in a gubernatorial debate in 2006: she, not her daughter, would decide whether or not to continue her daughter's (then, merely hypothetical) pregnancy. The Alaska Daily News reported:

The candidates were pressed on their stances on abortion and were even asked what they would do if their own daughters were raped and became pregnant.

Palin said she would support abortion only if the mother's life was in danger. When it came to her daughter, she said, "I would choose life."

Like all politically savvy pro-lifers, Palin mater framed her answer in terms of "choice" -- but the essence of her answer was exactly the opposite: if Bristol became pregnant, then Sarah, not Bristol, would make the decision what to do. Pregnant teenagers, in Palin's view, apparently have no say in the matter.

There's another way Palin has denied her daughter the freedom to make her own choices, as well: by telling the world about Bristol's pregnancy. Palin's announcement today was intended, not to be open and transparent to voters, but to squelch rumors that Bristol was the real mother of Palin's four month old son, Trig. (The idea that Palin was pretending to be Trig's mother to cover for her daughter weren't completely implausible -- a cluster of factoids including Palin's claim to have delivered a speech in Texas, flown back to Alaska, then driven 50 miles to a hospital while supposedly in labor; photos showing her trim physique at seven months pregnant;other photos that appeared to show Bristol with a "bump"; and Palin's prompt return to work only three days after Trig's birth, all lent credibility to the story.)

There was, of course, nothing wrong with Palin putting an end to false rumors about her son. But Palin chose to do so, not by disclosing medical records or undergoing genetic testing to prove maternity, but by airing her daughter's secret. Again: did Bristol choose to announce her pregnancy at this time, in this way?

And a third way in which Palin may have denied her daughter the right of choice: failing to give her adequate information about birth control. While kids today usually manage to figure out the fundamentals of the birds and the bees one way or another, it's fair to ask whether Sarah Palin even allowed her daughter true choice when it came to becoming pregnant in the first place: the Alaska governor not only believes Creationism should be taught in public schools at taxpayer expense, but fought for "abstinence only" sex education programs, saying, "The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support." So Bristol Palin, at age 16 or 17, received all the hormones God chose to give her - but did she receive good advice from her mother on all the ways she could keep those hormones from permanently altering her life - let alone access to condoms in case she needed them?

McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt shrugged off Bristol's pregnancy: "Life happens." But life happens more often when kids don't know the fundamentals of reproduction and contraception.

So while we applaud Sarah Palin's choice to bear Trig, we mustn't forget that she also wants to force all other girls and woment to make the same "choices" that she has made for herself and, with or without her consent, for her almost-adult daughter.

Bad Choices: We've seen Sarah Palin's choice, and Bristol Palin's (and, if Sarah has her way, all other women's) lack of choice. There's a third thread to unravel here, though: the assessment of whether the choices people have made in this situation show good judgment. The right to choose does not mean that all choices are good ones.

Bad Choice #1: Ambition Above Family: Let's squelch claims of sexism before they start here: imagine that Joe Biden chose to accept Barack Obama's invitation to become his running mate, leaving his wife behind to care for their four month old Down Syndrome son. Then imagine that just days later, on the first day of the Democratic Convention, the Obama campaign announced that Biden's 17 year old, unmarried daughter was pregnant, was keeping the child, and would give birth less than a month before the inauguration. What would be the response, across the political spectrum?

Simple: everyone, and I mean everyone, would say: sorry, Joe, it's not your time. You have responsibilities, and family must come before political ambition. We would say: Joe, only a jerk would hit the campaign trail and leave his wife behind with a developmentally disabled infant; she needs you, and it's your duty to be there for her. We would say: Joe, no good father would force his teenaged daughter to go through a beautiful and awful and life-changing event like having a child at that age without her father being there, right there, physically and tangibly there, to hold her and hug her and talk to her and help her, away from the limelight of a Presidential campaign. We would say: Joe, it would be nice to be vice president, but your family needs you at home, and we respect you less for choosing not to be there for them.

So it's not sexism, but respect for family and acknowledgment of the moral truths (which Republicans, in the old days, used to understand but seem to have forgotten in the last couple of decades) that with choice comes responsibility; and that character matters; and that family comes first - that leads me to say this: Only a jerk would run for vice president and leave her husband behind to care for a developmentally disabled infant. No good mother would force her teenaged daughter to go through an unwed pregnancy without her mother being there, physically and tangibly there, to hold her and hug her and talk to her and help her, away from the limelight of a Presidential campaign. Sarah: it might be nice to be vice president, but your family needs you at home, and we respect you less for choosing not to be there for them.

Bad Choice #2: Offering Palin the Vice Presidency: John McCain reportedly knew that Sarah Palin's unmarried 17 year old daughter was pregnant when he chose her as his running mate. John McCain knew that joining the campaign trail would take Palin away from her 4 month old developmentally disabled baby. Yet he chose Palin, in an obvious pander to the women's vote, as if women see only gender and not character or wisdom; or as if women are too simpleminded to understand that feminism and family are not mutually exclusive. Palin was wrong to accept McCain's offer; McCain was almost as wrong to make the offer in the first place. Out of the entire Republican Party, there surely were wiser, more constructive choices McCain could have made.

Bad Choice #3: Voting for McCain-Palin: There's one more choice in play here: ours, in November. Just as it was wrong for John McCain to offer Palin the vice presidency, and it was wrong for Palin to accept, it would be wrong - a bad choice - for voters to elect her. In part, that's because it's becoming increasingly clear that Palin has an unseemly hunger for power or approval or acclaim, one that would lead her, despite her supposed "family values," to leave her family in crisis to go on the political hunt. In part, that's because, notwithstanding her constant recourse to the word "choice," Palin is adamantly anti-choice: she may have chosen to be the mother of a Down Syndrome child and a pregnant teenaged daughter, but she would force all girls and women forced to do the same. She doesn't want any girl or woman in America to have any more choice than poor Bristol Palin has.

Most importantly, though, making Sarah Palin vice president would be a bad choice because John McCain, Sarah Palin, and even Barack Obama are flat wrong about the impact her family circumstances would have on her ability to perform in office.

Barack Obama? Yep. In a press availability today, Obama (ever the gentleman, but also cautious not to imply that women are incapable of having both strong families and meaningful careers) said this:

"This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as governor, or her potential performance as a vice president."

Obama's just wrong. This will affect her performance, unless she's a completely unemotional sociopath. Man or woman, again, it makes no difference: any parent who actually loves his or her family, who believes in any sort of work-life balance, will have no choice but to tilt that balance toward "life" in a situation like this. Your spouse, the primary caregiver for your developmentally disabled child, has a bad day and needs to be spelled: if you're a good mate, you take a sick day to care for both. Your daughter, struggling to cope with a newborn baby and sleeplessness and possibly postpartum depression, breaks down one morning and needs you: if you're a good parent, you cancel the morning meeting, grab a quilt and cuddle her through it. Doctor, lawyer, executive, teacher, factory worker: in a situation like this, your hours are going to drop while you care for your family. And if you're the vice president, that will affect your performance, especially if you're a vice president with almost no experience in politics and no experience at all in national or international politics, and who therefore needs to master an extremely steep learning curve: you're not going to be able to immerse yourself as deeply as your nation needs you to.

And if you're the vice president to a septuagenarian cancer survivor, and the worst happens - if, God forbid, you suddenly find yourself President - it will affect the fate of your nation. What do Vladimir Putin's most pleasant dreams consist of? Easy: he dreams, blissfully, of an America led by a provincial neophyte, distracted by a needful family, thrust unexpectedly and unwelcomely into leadership of the free world. Bin Laden dreams of the same. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dreams of the same; Hugo Chavez, the same.

Is it time for us to have a female President or, at least, vice President? Of course. Can women (and men) balance family responsibilities with work? Of course, though for all of us it's hard. But is it time for America to choose a woman whose own family responsibilities are extraordinarily high right now, who lacks any meaningful experience on the national stage, and who is so opposed to reproductive choice that she not only "chooses life" for herself, but forces motherhood, and wifehood, on her own daughter and would do the same to every woman in America? No - and it will never be time for such a choice.

There are many women who would be good choices. Sarah Palin, at any time but especially now, is not one of them. We have the choice, but we can't afford to make a bad choice.