It seems the one story from the 2008 presidential race that nearly everyone–from Us Weekly to the New York Times–has picked up on is 17-year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. Bristol is the daughter of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who, despite running with John McCain on the ticket of “Country and Women First,” has remained a staunch opponent of a woman’s right to choose. It’s been unclear since the announcement of Bristol’s pregnancy whether Bristol was the one who chose to keep her child and marry the baby’s father Levi Johnston (a self-proclaimed “fuckin’ redneck”). Suspicions that Bristol and the 18-year-old were pressured to start a family began to circulate almost immediately upon the news’ announcement. On his MySpace page, taken down fast but not too fast for the media to snatch a few gems from it, Levi said he was in a relationship, but “I don’t want kids.” It’s difficult to fathom an overnight change of heart from a teenager who likes “just fuckin’ chillin’ I guess” and lives “to play hockey,” and whose baby-granny happens to be running for VP.
But in all the hubbub of Bristol’s pregnancy, one major issue was almost left untouched: the question of statutory rape. Sexual abuse laws vary from state to state, and according to Alaskan laws, Levi should be in no trouble at all. In Alaska, the age of consent is 16, and Bristol was at least 16 when she had sex with Levi.
Consider the laws of a different state though, like California. In California, it is illegal for an 18-year-old to have sex with a minor, even if the minor gives consent. It is believed that persons 17 and under aren’t quite mature enough to make that decision for themselves. Because Bristol was less than three years younger than Levi at the time of the act, but because she was under 18, if they had been in California, Levi would be guilty of a misdemeanor and could be sentenced to up to a year in jail.
Now, this isn’t just an exercise to make Levi out to be a bigger jerk than he already might be. The two lucked out–legally-speaking–having sex in Alaska (assuming they did), because Alaska’s laws are laxer than those of other states. But, though it kept Levi out of jail, one has to wonder just how great it is that statutory rape laws vary from state to state. John McCain is a proponent of states’ rights, and unlike Sarah Palin, believes that abortions can be legal, but their laws should vary from state to state. But imagine this scenario. Suppose California permitted abortions and Nevada did not. That’s in essence saying that it’s OK to kill a human being in California, but not OK just a couple miles away in Nevada–or, if we’re on the other side of the fence, that women should have the right to choose, but in California, and not in Nevada. The answer to the question, “Should a woman have the right to choose?” shifts from an ideological one to an almost entirely physical one.
It begs one to consider statutory rape laws in this light. Is the question of the age of consent on par with that of abortions? If it does indeed possess the same level of gravity, then perhaps this is a law that should not be left up to each individual state–but the question of its seriousness, and how to translate a grasp of this seriousness into legal terms, is a tricky one.
The case of Bristol and Levi is a classic example of the challenges lawmakers face. A law has to be consistent. It can’t operate on a case-by-case basis. Some 16-year-olds are mature enough to weigh the dangers of intercourse with its pleasures, but some clearly are not. How can a law accommodate different rates of maturation? It simply can’t. So, sometimes we have Bristols and Levis, inadvertently starting families together.