It didn't take long for Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin to make a name for herself on the family-values front. Tapped only a week ago to join presidential contender Sen. John McCain on the GOP ticket, the little-known first-term governor of Alaska walked on stage with a reputation as a staunchly pro-life crusader. The details emerging about Palin's personal life—her special-needs baby and her pregnant teenage daughter—had supporters hailing her as a politician who "walked the walk." Within days of her entrance into the race, the entire campaign narrative had shifted, from a post-partisan battle for independents to a revival of the culture wars. "McCain wants to take away our right to choose," intoned an ad released by the Obama camp, shortly after Palin's selection as veep. "That's what women need to understand. That's how high the stakes are."
But the intense media focus on the personal choices Palin has made at home has obscured her record at work in the Alaska statehouse. Palin proudly advertises her membership in the national pro-life group Feminists for Life, which discourages abortion by addressing "the root causes that drive women to abortion—primarily lack of practical resources and support." No woman should have to choose between her career, education, and child, Palin told the Anchorage Daily News while running for governor back in 2006, arguing for more family-friendly environments. The question is, how often has her record backed up her rhetoric on issues of interest to families?
Not much, it turns out. Restrictions on abortion in Alaska have actually been loosened during her tenure. Last November, the Alaska Supreme Court rejected a 1997 law requiring girls younger than 16 to obtain parental consent before getting an abortion. Palin slammed the ruling as "outrageous" and had her attorney general file for a rehearing, but it was promptly denied.
Meanwhile, both this year and last year, she has used her line-item veto to slash state funds for programs providing precisely the kinds of resources Feminists for Life supports for at-risk mothers on the fence about abortion. She cut by 20 percent the funding for Covenant House Alaska, a state-supported program that includes a transitional home where new teenage mothers can spend up to 18 months learning money management and parenting skills. Critics have jumped all over that decision, arguing that the decision looks especially bad in light of the news that Palin's 17-year-old daughter has since become pregnant.
Palin has also voided funds for two other similar projects during her tenure as governor. One, a provider of the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Program, would have provided additional breastfeeding and nutrition support to low-income rural women, for a total cost of $15,840. Another, the Cook Inlet Housing Authority's student housing and daycare facility project, would have built a childcare facility and family-style housing units for students pursuing vocational education in Anchorage, most of whom come from rural areas.
Even Palin's commitment to pro-life legislation has been questioned back home. In April, the governor denied the state legislature's request for extra debates on two controversial anti-abortion bills, one requiring minors to obtain parental consent before having abortions and another outlawing partial-birth abortion except to save the life of the mother. After state senators failed to reach agreement, the chamber's president tried to attach them to the agenda of a special legislative session being held on Palin's top legislative priority: a new natural gas pipeline. Palin demurred. "Alaskans know I am pro-life and have never wavered in my belief in the sanctity of every human life," she said in a statement. "These issues are so important they shouldn't be diluted with oil and gas deliberations."
Palin's office indicated that those issues were next on the governor's agenda, referring requests for further comment on Palin's record to the McCain campaign, which did not return phone calls. If pro-life activists in Alaska are unhappy with Palin for not doing more, they don't show it. Alaska Right to Life director Karen Lewis, who has known Palin for a decade and calls her a "superhero" on the issue, blamed the legislative failures on a political squabble between the governor and state Senate President Lyda Green.
Liberal advocates on women's health issues have been more vocal. They say Palin raised expectations in 2007, when she attended a summit organized by The Alliance for Reproductive Justice, a group affiliated with Planned Parenthood. According to one attendee quoted on the Planned Parenthood Web site, "we had not planned on meeting Gov. Palin, so that was a surprise. She took the time to talk with us about her own experiences as a working mother, and relayed her support for women's health."
But early hopes have been dashed by a lack of follow-through, these activists say; Palin has taken a laissez-faire approach to the issues they discussed, including children's health care, domestic violence shelters, sex education and breastfeeding in the workplace.
In Alaska, there's no shortage of work for a concerned politician to do. The state's domestic violence and sexual assault rates are over twice as high as the national average. More women are murdered by men there than in any other state in the country. Alaska also has the highest Chlamydia rate in the nation, with 681.8 cases per every 100,000 people (the national average is 347.8 per 100,000). Activists point to a dire shortage in funding for domestic violence shelters, which have waiting lists despite the fact that the state boasts a $7 billion budget surplus. Amnesty International joined the chorus in April 2007, slamming both federal and state authorities for creating "a maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions" that effectively allowed sexual assailants impunity.
In response, Palin has requested—and secured—a $436,000 increase in state funding for the public safety department's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. The year before, too, she'd bumped up funding by another $300,000. But Clover Simon, head of Planned Parenthood Alaska, and Geran Tarr, a former state legislative aide who heads up the affiliated Alliance for Reproductive Justice, point to the overflowing shelters and say much more is needed. And Alaska might be able to afford it, given the council's total budget of nearly $11.5 million.
Could Palin have done more? Her critics agree that the natural gas pipeline project has monopolized the governor's political energy for the past two years, leaving little for the social issues she champions. At the same time, Right to Life Executive Director Karen Lewis points to achievements outside the legislative arena, such as judicial appointments, to buttress her faith in Palin as a pro-life leader. Likewise, in Alaska Right to Life's newsletter, former president Bob Bird commended her for "ask[ing] for public support in her efforts to reshape the judiciary." In her time as governor, Palin has appointed one Supreme Court justice and 10 lower-court judges.
But some critics think Palin has cynically hyped her personal story for political gain—a move that helps mask a flimsy record of accomplishment on the social issues that matter most to the GOP's religious conservative base. "This is what always happens in politics, and what I expect they will do in her run for vice president. She'll be going into churches and meeting with those types of groups and saying what they want to hear," says Tarr. "Her priority was the gas line. And that's fine that that was her priority, but she can't go ahead and claim to be active on women's and children's issues too."
Clarification (updated Sept. 11, 2008) : A number of readers have challenged the assertion in this story that Gov. Palin "cut by 20 percent the funding for Covenant House Alaska, a state-supported program that includes a transitional home where new teenage mothers can spend up to 18 months learning money management and parenting skills." In fact, she did not cut existing funding, but rather trimmed by $1.1 million funds the Alaska legislature had allocated for Covenant House Alaska this year for a capital construction project. We have also clarified the original wording which implied that Palin had voided the entire Women, Infants, Children (WIC) program. This was not our intent; Palin voided $15,840 the legislature had allocated for a WIC provider.