NEW YORK—You don't need a rich imagination to picture the scene. In the Alaska governor's mansion, a pair of parents and their visibly pregnant teenage daughter sit on a dead bear sprawled across a couch they had to have shipped because there isn't an Ethan Allen in Anchorage. On a second sofa, on the opposite side of a glass coffee table festooned by the exoskeleton of a giant crab, fidget a second set of parents and their son, aka the Extremely Nervous Boyfriend. Heads of dead animals line the walls.
"Levi, Levi, Levi." The governor pauses, reveling in the others' discomfort. Moments like this are how she earned the sobriquet Barracuda.
She leans in. "You little s---. You knocked up my daughter. Do you know how close your little sexcapade came to screwing up my plan for global domination? Now you're going to do the right thing."
A few days later, Extremely Nervous Boyfriend blinks under the bright lights of a stage in St. Paul, Minn., elevated to the even more challenging role of America's Unhappiest 18-Year-Old. I met a guy the night before he was executed. Levi Johnston had the same look in his eyes.
Sarracuda's 17-year-old fry was nearly as miserable.
"Bristol Palin made the decision on her own to keep the baby," the McCain-Palin campaign claimed in its press release. Did the daughter of the mother of all anti-choice governors really have a choice? Well ...
By pro-life standards, Sarracuda is an extremist. Parting ways with five out of six Americans, she's against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. For Bristol, doing the "right thing"—carrying the baby to term, getting married, being paraded across 37 million TV sets—was the path of least resistance.
In reality, Bristol is doing the wrong thing. She's having the kid. She's marrying the father. Three lives will likely be destroyed.
Even pro-choice liberals are afraid to speak the truth: teen marriage and parenthood are disasters for everyone concerned. I have serious problems with well-off married couples who decide to terminate their pregnancies for frivolous reasons. Conversely, abortion ought to be mandatory for people under 18. Twenty-five would be better. Teen marriage should be banned.
Anyone who went to high school knew a student couple where the girl became pregnant. What the unlucky couple decided to do about it would determine their future. The girls who had abortions went on with their lives. They graduated from high school and, if they were headed that way before the dipstick turned pink, continued with college and careers and all the other stuff young people are supposed to go on to do.
Then there were the girls who kept their babies. With few exceptions—I've never heard of any, but I imagine they exist—it was the wrong decision. Their lives were ruined. Many never graduated from high school, much less college. Their futures were grim: low educational attainment doomed them to dead-end jobs in the low-wage service sector. Married too young and under pressure, most wound up divorced. Many never remarried, or married stepfathers who barely tolerated their children. Their kids, raised in poverty in families led by single, stressed-out young moms, were themselves likely to repeat the cycle of downward mobility by getting pregnant in their teens.
Obviously, there are exceptions: teen pregnancies leading to lifelong partnerships with high school sweethearts, loving stepparents, daughters of 15-year-old parents making $1 million a year. But in most cases, studies confirm the anecdotal evidence. Having kids and getting married too young are a prescription for unhappiness.
Teen moms are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school. "The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reports that less than 40 percent of women who have a child before the age of 18 will graduate from high school, compared to a high school graduate rate of 75 percent for those who delay parenthood until their early 20s," law professors June Carbone and Noami Cahn wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Teen brides are 10 times more likely to plunge into poverty. In 2005 University of Rochester economist Gordon Dahl found that "a woman who marries young is 28 percentage points more likely to live in poverty when she is older." A 1993 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation determined that only 8 percent of women who finished high school, married before having a child, and married after age 20 became poor. Seventy-nine percent of women who didn't do these things wound up poor.
As the daughter of a possible future president, Bristol Palin probably won't be poor. (Although prominent figures, like Bill Cosby and Alan Keyes, do disown their children.) Even setting aside Levi's famous MySpace page ("I don't want kids"), his pending marriage to Bristol is probably doomed.
When teenage girls become pregnant, eight out of 10 of the fathers never marry them. One can hardly blame the runaway grooms, considering the probable outcomes. A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that 59 percent of couples who marry before age 18 split up within 15 years. But waiting a few years markedly increases a marriage's odds: 64 percent of couples who get hitched after age 20 are still married 15 years later.
I'll say it again: There are exceptions to every rule. Guys smoke two packs a day and live be to be 100. I've driven 115 mph and I'm still here. But neither smoking nor speeding are smart choices. One should be illegal; the other is. Society sets rules and regulations and laws to cover common situations and typical outcomes. On the matter of teen pregnancy and marriage, the typical outcome is terrible.
Those who keep silent about Levi and Bristol's bad decisions—especially those marketing them as examples to be emulated—are doing society a disservice. Levi and Bristol are about to compound one tragedy (unplanned teen pregnancy) with another (involuntary marriage). They're setting a terrible example for other teenagers who will find themselves in their situation.
Congress should act to protect these kids from themselves—ban teen marriage, mandate teen abortion.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.