Sarah Palin and the whole Down syndrome thing

Weeks ago, Mel made a comment asking for my feedback on a speech Sarah Palin had made in which she used her son Trig as evidence for her pro-choice political and personal beliefs.  Other folks have asked me questions about Sarah Palin, on this blog and in other fora, and I simply haven't answered them.  Today I started thinking about that and thought I'd share some random reflections.

Shortly after Maybelle was born--and I mean really shortly, like while she was still in the NICU--Trey sent me an email that said, "Sarah Palin has a son with Down syndrome."  I wrote back, "Who's Sarah Palin?" (This was August 2008, and I'd had a lot of other things going on, as you'll remember.)  When he told me, I had two immediate reactions:  the first, and strongest, was relief.  This is a woman with an incredibly important career.  If she can have a baby with Down syndrome and still be a vice presidential candidate, then I can surely keep my job (a worry I'd been having, since at the time I knew almost nothing about Down syndrome).

The second was also personal:  I thought, "Crap, this definitely means that the whole community of parents with kids with DS are crazy pro-lifers."  I imagined myself in a room with these folks, me smiling, sweating, trying gently to slide my own pro-choice sentiments into the conversation.  I knew that I needed the community, so I was willing to work with it.  The good news here is, shortly after the email from Trey, I got an email from a woman in Charleston who had a daughter a few months older than Maybelle, and her daughter also had DS.  When I wrote her back, she saw the signature on my email:

Alison Piepmeier
Director, Women's and Gender Studies Program
The College of Charleston

And she immediately emailed me back: "I graduated from C of C in 1991 with a minor in Women's Studies...the first year the program qualified as a minor. The Women's Studies course work changed and shaped my life.  Look forward to meeting you."  We both recount now that that moment, for both of us, was a great celebration:  There are other feminists who have kids with DS!  And we live in the same town!  Rest assured that within minutes of that message coming in, I was reading it aloud to Biffle.  The woman was Elizabeth, and you all have seen many pictures of her and her daughter, Rosemary, who is featured in the news clip below, just before Maybelle.

Okay, but anyway, back to Sarah Palin:  of course I disagree with her politics.  I could hardly disagree more vehemently.  And I understand that Trig has been a kind of political prop for her, in the way that all politicians' families are part of their political staging.  I have stayed away from examining any of that, though.  In the time immediately after Maybelle's birth, I stayed fairly far away from politics in general.  More than the "in general," though, I stayed away from Palin.  I was sensitive and vulnerable enough that I just didn't feel that I had it in me to analyze what Trig Palin "meant" politically or in terms of public discourse.  Perhaps at some level I assumed she might be as sensitive and vulnerable as I was.  I certainly was in no place for criticism of any sort about Maybelle or the way she was part of my life.

I'm beginning to recognize that I'm not going to be able to keep ignoring the Sarah Palin issue.  I'm doing research and writing on disabilities--in particular on parents of children with disabilities and the public discourses that shape their lives, their choices, and their interventions.  And Sarah Palin is a major player in those public discourses these days.

I suspect that Sarah Palin and I have a great deal of common ground when it comes to our children, but I also know that we have significant differences.  For instance (most importantly?), I have been and still am enthusiastically pro-choice.  While I'm very happy I didn't terminate the pregnancy that resulted in Maybelle, I recognize that reproductive choices are intensely personal ones.  I think we need much better public discourse around disabilities so that women are able to make real choices, the best choices possible, if they discover they're pregnant with a fetus that has Down syndrome.  But Maybelle functions in no way for me as an example of why pro-choice politics are wrong.  She's an example of how wonderful choice is, because we chose to have her.

1 comment:

Cindy said...

While I disagree with much of this post (which someday I may elaborate on but not now), I really appreciate your thoughtful take on this. When I saw the title I expected it to be a complete slam on Palin, her politics, her life. I was impressed and glad to see that you are taking a thoughtful approach to this subject. I look forward to reading more about this....