Pregnancy issue isn't black/white - or Brown

The Baltimore Sun

I miss Murphy Brown.

Not so much the sitcom of old, although I did watch it regularly and loved Candice Bergen's sass and style (great white shirts, cool accessories) as TV reporter Murphy Brown.

But what I really miss is a time when campaign discourse about unwed pregnancy centered on a grown-up, albeit fictional, woman rather than a 17-year-old, and very real, girl.

Back then - 1992, to be exact - it was slightly comical when Vice President Dan Quayle triggered a dispute by holding up Murphy Brown as a symbol of the breakdown in family values because the fictional character had a fictional baby out of fictional wedlock.

Today, though, we have vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose real daughter, Bristol, is having a real baby out of real wedlock - at least for now, since I haven't as yet received my invitation to the upcoming nuptials - and the situation is being held up in some quarters as the epitome of those same family values.

Truth is truly stranger than fiction.

I'm confused. What wasn't OK for Murphy is OK for Bristol, apparently because she's going to marry her baby daddy?

It's a long way between 1992, when Murphy was held up as a bad role model, and today, when Palin's supporters are lauding Bristol's decision to keep her baby and marry, even as they're telling everyone else to butt out.

At least Murphy could take care of herself (and in fact, series creator Diane English would get her payback against Quayle in a subsequent episode). As the character was drawn, she had the means and, more important, the maturity to make a decision about bringing a baby into her world. Not to mention, with that house painter who never finished the job and basically moved in for the duration of the show, she already had child care available.

As for Bristol, back here in the current, reality-based world, we just don't know. Had she gotten any sex-ed or birth control advice, either in school or at home? Has she or will she finish high school? Does she have a job? Does her boyfriend? How will two kids raise a kid?

I know: None of my beeswax.

Sorry, but if Governor Palin's biography - from her hockey-momitude to her walking-not-just-talking the anti-abortion viewpoint - is going to be part of the sales pitch of her candidacy, then it's going to be hard to cherry-pick which chapters are fair game and which are off-limits. Especially if, as yesterday's picture of the day showed, she is going to bring the whole clan, including Bristol and the presumptive son-in-law, to a photo-op greeting of running mate John McCain, arriving at the Minnesota airport for the convention. And if the Republican platform on which they are running contains a plank calling for increased funding for abstinence-only education for teens and one that voices opposition to abortion, even in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

I don't believe Bristol should be hidden away as they used to do in the shame-shrouded days of old, when girls "got in trouble" - that, young people, is what they used to say instead of "knocked up." And yes, both are nasty turns of phrase. But it's another thing to issue a campaign news release noting your teenage daughter's pregnancy and her plans to marry the baby's father, asking that we respect their privacy, even as everyone hauls out to St. Paul for the very public convention.

I wouldn't presume to judge whatever decisions Bristol has made - or been allowed to make - on entirely personal issues of contraception, sex and pregnancy. And that's the point: These are private choices, and the anti-abortion forces who would celebrate a girl for keeping a baby and marrying the father are the very ones who would make this not a private matter and not a choice.

This is terribly tricky territory, and thus not something suited for the post-and-comment, blog-and-flame treatment that it's getting these days, as the Palin nomination hurtles us back into the culture wars.

But much has changed since Murphy's single-motherhood was considered so remarkable as to merit a slap from a sitting vice president. Today, the celebrity mags and sites are filled with breathless chatter of this or that starlet - even a teenage Disney star - and their baby bumps, baby showers and, eventually, actual babies (if not actual marriages in every case).

I'm not sure the whole "celebuspawn" fixation has anything to do with the recent uptick in teen pregnancy rates, any more than Murphy Brown had much to do with what Quayle called the "poverty of values." (Quayle's speech actually was more about the illegitimacy and poverty rates of inner-city blacks, and I think his real mistake was not bringing Murphy into it but making it a racial thing rather than a social and economic thing.)

But if you thought Murphy symbolized the way Hollywood would, as Quayle put it, "routinely jeer" talk of moral values, I'm not sure what you should make of the latest entry, a 17-year-old girl from Alaska, in a slide show on US Weekly's Web site, "Shocking Teen Pregnancies!"

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