Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Palin's Pregnancy Says about Her Poor Judgment

We here at Kittywampus typically think it's far more fun to debunk rumors and conspiracy theories than to spread them. But I've been sick for the past few days with something flu-ish, and while sprawled on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, I've had too much time to read about Sarah Palin. And since I'm a historian of childbirth, the oddities in her pregnancy story set me wondering.

For one, no one on her staff suspected she was pregnant until she announced it at seven months. For another, Palin flew back to Alaska from Texas after her water broke; her son Trig was born a few hours after she reached the hospital. Let's say that again: Palin chose to get on an airplane and travel for at least eight hours after her water broke, risking a preterm birth while in the air.

These improbable details come from Alaskan news reports last spring; they're the closest I'll come to hard facts in this post. But as soon as I started Googling for more information, I learned they've spawned an even weirder rumor: that baby Trig is actually the son of Palin's oldest daughter, Bristol.

I'm only going to touch briefly on the rumor. I think the alleged facts as presented by Palin may actually be more damning. I also have qualms about digging into the private life of a minor child. The issue here is Palin's conduct, not her daughter's. And even Palin's behavior in this regard might be off the table - except she wants to make my uterus part of the public domain, so why should hers be private? Especially when her conduct was downright reckless by just about any standard?

Here's the main evidence for the rumor: Bristol was allegedly out of school due to mono for at least four months - a point that is unconfirmed - in order to hide her pregnancy. If the baby were Bristol's, it would explain why her mother had to hurry back from Texas to Alaska. There are pictures of Bristol that show what could be a baby bump, but might also simply be a belly, as well as photos of an incredibly svelte Sarah two months before her supposed due date. (For more details, see the diary at Daily Kos and a post at Menstrual Poetry, which lay out the most persuasive version of the case.)

The most compelling visual evidence is this photo taken when Palin claimed to be seven months pregnant:

(See the Daily Kos for more photos.)

I don't see even the shadow of a baby bump - and by seven months, you should. During my second pregnancy, my students started speculating was-I-fat-or-pregnant when I was just shy of five months, days before I told them. By seven months, strangers were predicting my baby's sex from the shape of my belly.

Granted, a few women don't show until very late in pregnancy. Most of them are fat to start with. Governor Palin is quite trim. She also had four previous pregnancies, and very few women show less with successive babies. It is possible to be petite and hide a pregnancy until the seventh month; my father's second wife did this in the early 1960s, basically by starving herself. So we'll give Palin the benefit of the doubt. Let's say she restricted her calories and has tremendous abs.

Assuming for just a moment that the rumor is true: As an advocate of abstinence-only education and a foe of abortion, Palin would've had ample reason to insist her daughter carry out the pregnancy - but in secret. This isn't just a plot line from Desperate Housewives. It's a time-honored way for highly religious parents to deal with the personal shame and public embarrassment of a pregnant, unwed teenager. Palin's public position would only have amplified the crisis. Perhaps they'd arranged for an adoption but the Down's diagnosis scuttled the deal - which might explain why Palin announced she was expecting so late in the game. (While the incidence of Down syndrome is exponentially higher in 44-year-olds than in 17-year-olds, it can occur with very young mothers, too. A routine ultrasound could have triggered suspicion if the nuchal fold - a fold in the neck - were unusually thick; so could routine blood testing.)

On the other hand, assuming the rumor is false: Perhaps Palin's fitness routine kept her unusually trim. She might well have kept mum about her pregnancy because she's the sort of high-achieving woman who thinks she has to prove she's ten times tougher than a man. We know she went back to work right after her daughter Piper was born, and we know she likes macho sports like hunting, so this would be in character for her.

But either way - whether the rumor is true or false - Palin's judgment looks pretty poor. If it's true, she's shown herself capable of lying on a grand scale. Yes, this is a family matter, but she has allowed baby Trig to become a political statement - a public symbol of her pro-life views. And do we really need another vice president with a Cheneyesque propensity for cover-ups?

But let's assume the rumor is false - as one must, for Bristol Palin's sake, until some enterprising reporter manages to locate a birth certificate and medical records. (Actually, Palin herself should release all these records and put the rumor to rest. I've found one response to the Daily Kos material with pictures purporting to debunk the rumor, but the appearance of a belly in one photo doesn't explain its absence in others.)

If Palin actually flew from Texas to Alaska after her water broke - and medically, there's no difference between a "leak" and a "break" - it was incredibly irresponsible. Alaska Airlines doesn't bar flying in late pregnancy, so it was entirely Palin's judgment call. Here's how the Anchorage Daily News reported it at the time:
Palin was in Texas last week for an energy conference of the National Governors Association when she experienced signs of early labor. She wasn't due for another month.

Early Thursday -- she thinks it was around 4 a.m. Texas time -- she consulted with her doctor, family physician Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who is based in the Valley and has delivered lots of babies, including Piper, Palin's 7-year-old.

Palin said she felt fine but had leaked amniotic fluid and also felt some contractions that seemed different from the false labor she had been having for months.

"I said I am going to stay for the day. I have a speech I was determined to give," Palin said. She gave the luncheon keynote address for the energy conference.

Palin kept in close contact with Baldwin-Johnson. The contractions slowed to one or two an hour, "which is not active labor," the doctor said.

"Things were already settling down when she talked to me," Baldwin-Johnson said. Palin did not ask for a medical OK to fly, the doctor said.

"I don't think it was unreasonable for her to continue to travel back," Baldwin-Johnson said.

So the Palins flew on Alaska Airlines from Dallas to Anchorage, stopping in Seattle and checking with the doctor along the way.

"I am not a glutton for pain and punishment. I would have never wanted to travel had I been fully engaged in labor," Palin said. After four kids, the governor said, she knew what labor felt like, and she wasn't in labor. ...

They landed in Anchorage around 10:30 p.m. Thursday and an hour later were at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Wasilla.

Baldwin-Johnson said she had to induce labor, and the baby didn't come until 6:30 a.m. Friday.

"It was smooth. It was relatively easy," Palin said. "In fact it was the easiest of all," probably because Trig was small, at 6 pounds, 2 ounces.

Palin said she wanted him born in Alaska but wouldn't have risked anyone's health to make that happen.

"You can't have a fish picker from Texas," said Todd.

(Source: Anchorage Daily News. See also the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.)
It doesn't matter if Palin was not in labor upon boarding the plane. She could very easily have gone into active labor in transit. Between the time her water broke until she arrived in the hospital, nearly 16 hours passed.

Palin's version of the story raises a host of questions:
  • Why would you deliver your speech as scheduled instead of getting checked out by a doctor?
  • Why would you then board a plane without at least being examined by an obstetrician for any signs of fetal distress?
  • Why would you simply inform your physician, rather than asking whether it was advisable to fly?
  • Given that the drop in air pressure can bring on contractions, why would you take a very significant chance on your baby being born on an airplane?
  • Why would you do this knowing he was a month early?
  • Why would you risk it knowing he had Down syndrome, which can affect the heart and other organs in ways that aren't obvious prior to birth?
  • And why would you take the extra time to drive to Wasilla's little hospital, rather than proceeding directly to a major medical center in Anchorage, equipped to handle prematurity and other complications?
You don't have to take my word that Palin was taking a massive risk. At TPM Cafe, a doctor writing under the name of Steevo calls it "incredibly poor judgment." (Steevo's whole post is very informative.)

Regular readers know that I'm not terribly quick to judge or blame mothers. But this incident is not just a parenting issue; it's a matter of basic sense and judgment. If we accept Palin's version of events, she was highly irresponsible. This was batshit crazy.

And quite apart from Palin's position on the issues - which are awful enough - this is not the kind of judgment I want to see in the White House. Eight years of recklessness have been - as Obama said in his great speech - ENOUGH.

Update, 8/31/08, 9:15 p.m.: Reader Molly pointed me to this post by Andrew Sullivan, which suggests the story is moving up the food chain. I highly recommend this excellent, very reasonable analysis by Skeptic Dad. And man, I can't believe the traffic this post is generating. Maybe I ought to cover gossip more often?!

Update 9/4/08, 9:30 p.m.: This post has now eclipsed my all-time greatest hits: the Duggars' 18 kids, the health benefits of ejaculation, and the finger length-testosterone link. If you've made it this far through this post (written fuzzy-headed while I fought a mild flu), you might want to read my somewhat less rambling followups exploring the medical reasons why hopping that flight was foolhardy, and what such macho behavior suggests about Palin's flavor of feminism.


John Nail said...

Water Breakgate - Latest Update - New Issues for McCain

Sungold said...

Thanks for the link, John. I appreciate that your stuff is critical and skeptical. It's one thing to say a rumor bears investigating - quite another to just jump on it as occurred at the Daily Kos.