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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 4
Advent - Christmas 2008

The Sarah Palin Effect: The Power of a Mother's Example

by Nancy Valko, RN

Sarah Palin’s positive effect on the pro-life movement in the United States is not diminished by the results of the recent presidential election. Though few had heard of the Governor of Alaska before Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose her as his running mate, virtually everyone in the country almost immediately knew what she stood for. I truly believe that the face of the pro-life movement in the US is forever changed by the candidacy of Sarah Palin and especially by her response to two of the “hardest cases” involving abortion: abortion for predicted birth defects and teenage pregnancy. Because I have been personally touched by both these circumstances, I must applaud her courage and example.


I first heard of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin in May, 2008 when I read an article about her newborn son with Down Syndrome and that, unlike 90% of US women receiving such a prenatal diagnosis, she refused to abort. Having had a daughter born with Down Syndrome in 1982 and having often written about both prenatal and postnatal discrimination against babies with Down Syndrome, I was ecstatic to see such a proud and positive mother of a child with special needs. Expectant and new parents of such children commonly receive much negative information at the time of diagnosis instead of useful information and encouragement. The Palin family’s response to their son and his diagnosis provides a particularly powerful example of hope to families.

I was disappointed but not really surprised when the so-called mainstream media did not pick up Sarah Palin’s heart-warming story. Positive stories about the Special Olympics and the amazing accomplishments by individuals with disabilities are rather easily found in mainstream newspapers and magazines but articles about prenatal testing for babies with disabilities invariably focus on the “agonizing choice” between not aborting (usually framed as a religious decision) or potentially subjecting the child and his or her family members to a life of suffering. The usual conclusion of such articles is that everyone must have the right to choose what they consider best for them even if that “choice” means killing a child because of a disability.

When Sarah Palin became the Republican vice presidential candidate, the issue of choice quickly changed. Mrs. Palin was criticized by some liberal commentators for, among other reasons, not refusing the nomination to devote herself to her child’s special needs and even for having a baby at her supposedly advanced age because of the increased chance of conditions like Down Syndrome.

Like many other people, I had a different reaction.

I must admit that I had tears in my eyes when I saw Sarah Palin carry Trig with such obvious loving pride and also when I saw Trig’s 7 year old sister Piper lick her hand and smooth his hair during their mother’s acceptance speech. Liberal commentators might not acknowledge the beauty of such actions but apparently the average person does. The issue of “choice” fades when we see the smiles surrounding such a baby.

And what we parents of children with disabilities know but few liberal commentators apparently do is that this kind of acceptance and grace does not always come easily or automatically, although it usually does come eventually. This is why support is so necessary for families dealing with disability issues.

I could easily relate to a September 2008 People interview with Sarah Palin in which she said “Not knowing in my own heart if I was going to be ready to embrace a child with special needs. I couldn’t talk about it.”[1]

According to the article, Sarah Palin’s fears subsided "the minute [Trig] was born" and she wrote an announcement letter to relatives telling them about Trig’s Down Syndrome, saying "I let Trig's mom and dad find out before he was born that this little boy will truly be a gift." Palin signed it "Trig's Creator, Your Heavenly Father." [2]

Such honesty is both necessary and heartening in discussions about abortion for so-called “fetal defects”, especially since polls show up to 70% public support for abortion  “if there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby.”[3] 

Even though I have always been prolife and would never abort a child with health problem, I saw a child with Down Syndrome who was acting up in a grocery store two weeks before my own Karen was born and I actually prayed that my child wouldn’t have Down Syndrome. However, like so many parents before me, I found that the reality of Karen turned out to be much different from my initial fears and that she changed my life for the better during her short life. Because of Karen, my biggest concern during my next pregnancy was miscarriage rather than whether or not this child would be “good enough” because I finally learned, as Sarah Palin wrote, that every child is a gift from God.

Ironically, many abortion supporters seem to have taken the Palin family’s welcoming of baby Trig as an affront rather than a choice. For example, Dr. Andre Lalonde, executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, told a Canadian newspaper "Palin's decision to keep her baby, knowing he would be born with the condition, may inadvertently influence other women who may lack the necessary emotional and financial support to do the same."[4]

Actually, I pray that he is right and I also pray that such mothers in challenging circumstances do go to the prolife and other resources that exist to help them also choose life for their babies.


Soon after Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, she issued a statement about her 17-year-old daughter Bristol that said,   "We have been blessed with five wonderful children who we love with all our heart and mean everything to us. Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.”

"Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family. We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates."[5]

How often have we heard that prolifers are against abortion-until their own teenage daughter gets pregnant? How often do we still hear that parental notification laws will result in many underage girls being kicked out of their homes, beaten or even killed when their parents find out they are pregnant? Sarah Palin’s family stands in stark contrast to those false stereotypes but apparently few commentators in the mainstream media have made that connection.

    Instead, Mrs. Palin was subjected to another round of criticism for exposing her pregnant daughter to publicity and for failing to instill her daughter with her own, allegedly outdated moral values.

   10 years ago, I wrote an article for the National Catholic Register [6] about prolifers whose daughters faced unwed pregnancy just a few weeks after my own 18-year-old daughter told me she was pregnant. With her permission, I wrote about her situation, the difficult choice between adoption and keeping her baby and how other prolife parents responded to their own situations.

    Like the other mothers I interviewed for the article, I was initially shocked and saddened by the news that my teenager was pregnant but I already knew that abortion wasn’t an answer. Like the other mothers and probably Sarah Palin herself, one of my first instincts was to shelter my daughter from judgment. However, we mothers soon find that trying to hide these kinds of situations is impossible in the real world and, more importantly, it can isolate our daughters and families from sources of support.

    Our daughters obviously made some wrong decisions but they are nevertheless heroes for protecting their unborn children from abortion. And, as Sarah Palin has shown, there is much to be gained by publicly embracing and supporting our daughters and their babies. Actually, this is what the prolife movement has already done for years even though the mainstream media chooses to ignore it.

    The common mainstream media stereotype of a prolifer is that of a rigid, unsmiling religious fanatic who doesn’t care about women and their lives. Sarah Palin has challenged that stereotype just by being a warm, loving mother herself who affirms life in all circumstances. Her courage in publicly living her principles has made her a target of the abortion industry but her extraordinary example has helped reshape and reinvigorate the public debate about abortion. 

   Win or lose, Sarah Palin deserves our thanks.


[2] “Sarah Palin Reveals More About the Birth of Down Syndrome Son Trig” by Steven Ertelt. September 6, 2008.

Available online at:

[3] “Genetic Testing + Abortion = ???” by Amy Harmon. New York Times, 5/13/2007. available online at:

[4] “Canadian Doctors Group Worried Palin Example Will Lower Down's Abortion Rate” by Thaddeus M. Baklinski.  September 10, 2008,  Available online at:

[5] “Bristol Palin's pregnancy raises issues of privacy, judgment” by  Martha T. Moore. September 1, 2008. USA Today. Available online at:

[6] “A Crisis Pregnancy Close to Home” by Nancy Valko, RN. March 22-28, 1998, National Catholic Register. Pg. 9

Nancy Valko, a registered nurse from St. Louis, is president of Missouri Nurses for Life, a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses and a Voices contributing editor.

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