Bristol Palin: What a Difference Four Decades Makes

It was 1972 in San Francisco, in the era before legalized abortions, when bearing a child out of wedlock was still a scandal. In the closed world of the Catholic university we attended, it was an even bigger shame than in the rushing waters of the outside world, especially with hippies, free love, the pill, the sexual revolution, the women's movement and all the hallmarks of that permissive time. In that time and that place, my friend who I will call Jane, became pregnant by a foreign student with whom marriage was never a possibility.

Jane came from a huge, devoutly Catholic family; she was the fifth child and second daughter of a dozen siblings raised on a farm near Sacramento. Her father was a retired administrator who taught at one of the state universities. Her parents were very kind, good people. I remember many happy times at the farm between semesters; long summer days in the Central Valley heat; and a houseful of loving siblings during the winter holidays.

She had never considered using birth control; it was a sin, after all. (So was fornication but I digress...) Furthermore, birth control was legalized only after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1967. It is important to remember that the birth control pill, known simply as "the pill," had only become available in 1960 but until Griswold v. Connecticut, it was accessible mainly to married couples. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973, put an end to the embarrassing practice of begging psychiatrists to write a letter for you arguing that without a therapeutic abortion, you could go off the deep end.

The Catholic Church and the conservative establishment fought distribution of the pill that they saw as an agent of a sexual revolution which would disrupt all the hierarchical and patriarchal structures through which they exercised their power. They continue to fight pharmaceutical advances like the day after pill, RU 486, as well as legalized abortion.

When Jane found herself pregnant, everything changed. I drove her to her father's office so she could break the news. I sat in the hallway while she went in. It was an agonizing visit. When she finally emerged, her face stained with tears, she shared her father's verdict: She was to stay away from the family home until after the birth of the child, and she was to give up the child for adoption after which she would be allowed to return. His main concern, he said, was that a bad example not be set for the younger children, several of whom were not yet ten years old. As far as I know, her mother had nothing to say about it; I don't know if she urged him, in private, to change his mind; nor do I recall if she ever called Jane during that period. I have often wondered what that exile cost Jane in her relationship won her parents.

Jane, then a senior, 20 years old, found herself without a home to return to, without familial support, alone in a way she had never been.

Close to our college, there was a home for unwed mothers. Women in difficulties like Jane's were allowed to live there, earning their keep by being hired out to upper-middle- class families where they cleaned houses. One would think that the families who hired them would have a measure of compassion for these young girls in trouble. Think again.

The families who hired them openly regarded them as fallen women. Cleaning those houses was a favor that those well-off people bestowed upon them, a gift given grudgingly and gracelessly. Never was Jane allowed to forget her sin; forcing her to wear a scarlet letter would have been no worse.

Jane did her time; she cleaned the houses; she had her baby - a girl - and gave her up for adoption. Still in the hospital after giving birth her older sister came to her bedside only to excoriate her for having brought disgrace upon the family. Once it was all over, she could go home, finally. It seemed to me that she never really got over it.

Jane and I drifted apart and I do not know if she ever looked for her baby or if the child eventually found her way back to her. I hope they found each other.

I was thinking about Jane as I watched the evolving news from the Republican convention, especially the revelations about Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her pregnant 17 year-old daughter, Bristol. People are such gossip-mongers; of course the news about her daughter was bound to draw attention for a while.

I am deeply happy that girls who find themselves in trouble (don't you love euphemisms?) will no longer be excoriated and expelled by their communities. That, at least, is one thing for which Gov. Palin should be praised. If one as conservative as she is, with a track record of pushing abstinence as the only birth control, can welcome her errant daughter with open arms, there is some hope that others will follow suit. I don't know if homes for unwed mothers still exist. I hope not but I do hope some supports exist, kinder gentler supports than what we've seen in the past.

The only reason it is worth discussing at all is that the conservatives have been guiltier than any other group of condemning young women in similar straits. From Hester Prynne to the present, it has been a sin that women have carried alone as if there were an epidemic of parthenogenesis out there. They didn't do it to themselves but they have been treated as such. I am glad that that hypocrisy has finally been discarded, even if it is a result of bald political opportunism.

Hypocrisy is never far from the surface. The conservatives are demanding support for women who find themselves pregnant and praising Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for his support for alternatives to abortion. Perhaps they can be persuaded to support the children who are already born and living in poverty even as their congressional representatives condemn welfare and try to destroy programs for poor families with dependent children. Poverty: The final frontier.

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