Bristol Palin: Poster Child for Teen Pregnancy Prevention

Palin is talking about the realities of teen motherhood, but will she persuade teens not to have sex?


Bristol Palin is hitting the airwaves today, appearing on both the Today show and Good Morning America in recognition of the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She's calling for all teens to abstain from sex. Her father, who was also interviewed, says he's hoping other teens will learn from "the mistake she made a year ago." I'm guessing Todd Palin probably regrets his word choice, but the message he and his daughter are sending is a good one: Being a mom drastically alters a teen's life and cuts short her childhood.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy agrees. The group is working with Bristol on a national campaign to educate kids about teen pregnancy—how diaper changes and midnight feedings can be a real drag. The organization issued press releases back in September, when it was first announced that the Republican vice presidential candidate had a pregnant daughter, and then again in December when Bristol gave birth, calling for parents to use this "opportunity to talk to their own children about sex, love, and relationships, as well as the value of delaying pregnancy and childbearing until adulthood." But it's a strange sort of coupling, given that the organization promotes comprehensive sex education in schools, an issue vehemently opposed by Sarah Palin on the campaign trail.

What gives? I asked the organization's spokesperson Bill Albert this morning. (The president, Sarah Brown, was off in New York hanging out with Bristol, but you can read her blog post on the Reality Check site.)

"We've been asked several times, why would we work with Bristol Palin?" he tells me. "My answer is, why wouldn't we? She's had the highest-profile teen pregnancy of the year. If we take her at her word—that she's going to discuss the realities of being a teen mom—then that's good." He says teens need to hear Bristol's message, which is essentially that she loves her child with all her heart and soul, but if she had it to do all over again, she would wait.

In fact, he says, his organization frequently brings teenage parents to high schools to lecture about their life experiences. "Students tell us that it's particularly effective to hear from teen parents themselves—not some overweight, middle-aged guy like me."

The need to address teen pregnancy is particularly pressing because recent data show an uptick in teen birthrates after years of decline. President Obama has indicated that his upcoming budget will shift funds away from abstinence-only sex education toward evidence-based programs that teach both abstinence and use of contraception.

"We can't put all our eggs in the sex education basket," says Albert. Truth is, there are a lot of factors that are shifting the winds in favor of a rise in teen pregnancies. First and foremost, young adults are less concerned about HIV than they were a decade ago, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last week. This lack of fear may be leading to more unprotected sex with more partners. What's more, funding to prevent teen pregnancy became a lower priority over the years as pregnancy rates steadily dropped, according to Albert.

So will having Bristol Palin as the poster child to prevent teen pregnancy actually work to help alleviate the problem? Is there any research showing that having teens talk in schools changes the sexual behaviors of young people? "That's an interesting question," Albert says. "To my knowledge, there haven't been any studies."