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Palin's Personal Choice

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, hold five-day-old Trig in April 2008.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, hold five-day-old Trig in April 2008. (By Al Grillo -- Associated Press)
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Monday, April 20, 2009

I'd like to thank Sarah Palin for her bravery in explaining the importance of a woman's right to choose. Even braver, the Alaska governor made her eloquent case for choice at a right-to-life fundraising dinner.

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That was not, of course, Palin's intention in revealing that she momentarily considered having an abortion. Twice, actually -- once when she discovered she would be a mother at 44, again several weeks later when she discovered that her baby would have Down syndrome.

I'll quote Palin at length, partly because I want readers to see that I'm not taking her remarks out of context, even more because the account of her anguished choice about whether to "change the circumstances" is so gripping and so genuine. Instead of the Tina Fey caricature, we see a flesh-and-blood woman whose moral certainties are being put to a real-world test:

"I had found out that I was pregnant while out of state first, at an oil and gas conference. While out of state, there just for a fleeting moment, wow, I knew, nobody knows me here, nobody would ever know. I thought, wow, it is easy, could be easy to think, maybe, of trying to change the circumstances. No one would know. No one would ever know.

"Then when my amniocentesis results came back, showing what they called abnormalities. Oh, dear God, I knew, I had instantly an understanding for that fleeting moment why someone would believe it could seem possible to change those circumstances. Just make it all go away and get some normalcy back in life. Just take care of it. Because at the time only my doctor knew the results, Todd didn't even know. No one would know. But I would know. First, I thought how in the world could we manage a change of this magnitude. I was a very busy governor with four busy kids and a husband with a job hundreds of miles away up on the North Slope oil fields. And, oh, the criticism that I knew was coming. Plus, I was old . . .

"So we went through some things a year ago that now lets me understand a woman's, a girl's temptation to maybe try to make it all go away if she has been influenced by society to believe that she's not strong enough or smart enough or equipped enough or convenienced enough to make the choice to let the child live. I do understand what these women, what these girls go through in that thought process."

Except that, of course, if it were up to Palin, women would have no thought process to go through. The "good decision to choose life," as she put it, would be no decision at all, because abortion would not be an option.

This is not a particularly complex point, but it is one toward which Palin seems deliberately obtuse. It came up at the Republican convention last summer, when the Palins issued a statement about their daughter's pregnancy: "We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby." Again, in the world according to Palin, there would be no decision at all. Abortion would be illegal except to save the life of the mother.

I respect Palin's decision not to "make it all go away." She describes her doubts about whether she had the fortitude and patience to cope with a child with Down syndrome, and, with the force of a mother's fierce love, the special blessing that Trig has brought to her life. She speaks as someone who is confident that she made the correct choice.

For her. In fact, the overwhelming majority of couples choose to terminate pregnancies when prenatal testing shows severe abnormalities. In cases of Down syndrome, the abortion rate is as high as 90 percent.

For the crowd listening to her at last week's dinner, Palin's disclosure served the comfortable role of moral reinforcement: She wavered in her faith, was tempted to sin, regained her strength and emerged better for it.

As for those us less certain that we know, or are equipped to instruct others, when life begins and when it is permissible to terminate a pregnancy, Palin's speech offered a different lesson: Abortion is a personal issue and a personal choice. The government has no business taking that difficult decision away from those who must live with the consequences.

marcusr@washpost.com




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