ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Bristol Palin's pregnancy may be the ultimate teachable moment. It just might not be the lesson that John McCain intended. My first thought on hearing the news was: What was Sarah Palin thinking? Assuming, as the campaign says, that she knew about her 17-year-old's pregnancy and informed McCain in advance, how could she expose her daughter to the inevitable spotlight that Palin's vice presidential nomination would bring?
The unwed mother -- or at least, the not-yet-wed mother -- has become a more common (this is bad) and less shameful (this is good) phenomenon in 21st century America. It's the unusual celebrity (the Hollywood type, not the Obama type) who bothers to get hitched before getting pregnant. The baby bump has become a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter.
And yet, no one feels good about a pregnant 17-year-old, whether Bristol or Jamie Lynn Spears. As Sarah and Todd Palin put it with decided understatement Monday, this will "make her (Bristol) grow up faster than we had ever planned."
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And it will be that much more difficult in the media glare. "We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi's (the father) privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates," the Palins said in their statement.
As a parent, I sympathize. But as a parent in the media, I also know that the Palins assumed this risk. Anyone who watched coverage of the Bush twins' barroom exploits knew that the avert-your-eyes stance toward candidates' children has its limits.
It's naive to imagine, in the current anything-goes Internet era, that Palin's daughter's pregnancy would go unremarked. It's also mistaken, I think, to expect it. Like it or not, Bristol Palin's pregnancy is intertwined with an important public policy debate about which the two parties differ and on which Sarah Palin has been outspoken.
Which brings me to the teachable moment: What should teenagers be taught about sexual activity and contraception? By whom? What access should they have to condoms or other forms of birth control? Specifically, is abstinence-only education enough?
The 2008 Republican Party platform acknowledges that "each year, more than 3 million American teenagers contract sexually transmitted diseases, causing emotional harm and serious health consequences, even death." It expresses support for "efforts to educate teens and parents about the health risks associated with early sexual activity and provide the tools needed to help teens make healthy choices."
Then it adds, "Abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases."
Yes, but talking about abstinence turns out to be easier than abstaining. More than 60 percent of high-school seniors report having had sex at least once. The message that every family should take from Bristol Palin's pregnancy is: It can happen here.
Except Sarah Palin opposes programs that teach teenagers anything about contraception. "The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support," she said in answering a questionnaire from the conservative Eagle Forum during her 2006 gubernatorial race.
McCain has voted to increase abstinence-only funding, to terminate the federal family planning program, and against funding teen pregnancy prevention programs. He voted to require teens seeking birth control to obtain parental consent.
Being a teenager means taking stupid risks. The best, most attentive parenting, the best, most comprehensive sex education, won't stop teenagers from doing dumb things. The most we as parents can hope for is to insulate our children, as best we can, from the consequences of their own stupidity.
I have two daughters back home, 11 and 13 -- close enough to Bristol's age that I cannot comfort myself that her situation is a far-off irrelevance.
When I talk with them about this news, I will use the moment to teach the muddled message that is the only one that makes sense to me in the messy modern world: Wait, please. But whenever you choose to have sex, don't do it without contraception.