The Riddle of the Proud Unmarried Mother Congresswoman

There are times when an ethicist feels that he may have dropped into a parallel universe where what he thought were bedrock principles no longer exist. This is one of those times, as the news that California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is not only pregnant, but intentionally pregnant, without being married was greeted by the media and the public with giggles and yawns.

Huh? Sanchez is a role model, for young women and Hispanics, most of whom need to avoid single-parenthood like the plague if they are to have a chance at success, an education and economic stability. She is an elected official to high national office, and automatically responsible for setting and supporting healthy and ethical cultural norms. Having babies out of wedlock may be cultural norms in some places—Washington, D.C, Hollywood—but it certainly isn’t healthy… or smart. A disproportional number of pregnant single women end up raising their children alone. A disproportional number of those mothers are poor. And a disproportional number of their children wind up having their own children out of wedlock, continuing the cycle.

Never mind all that, Sanchez is telling the teenaged girls who look up to her. This is fun! Heck, she’s not even engaged to the father, though she is "unofficially engaged” (giggle! Sanchez is so darned cute!) She doesn’t see why there should be any problem with her conduct. "I’m not a high school kid, it wasn’t an accident, I’m financially stable, in a committed relationship," she told the Washington Post. "All the reasons for worrying about bringing a child into the world don’t exist here."

Yes, they do. ALL the reasons, because the people—especially the young people—that her irresponsible conduct influences don’t recognize the distinctions between her situation and theirs. Sanchez, a Congresswoman, has declared that having a child without a husband is okay, a good thing, a legitimate option, not just for her, but for everyone.

She doesn’t comprehend that. Indeed, there’s a great deal she doesn’t comprehend. Think about this quote: "We’ve evolved as a society so much. The reality of single working moms is such a powerful reality." The fact that a proliferation of single working moms is indeed at epidemic proportions does not make it a good thing or something to be promoted. Drug use among teens is a powerful reality. AIDS is a powerful reality. Does Rep. Sanchez really believe that more single parent families are good for children, families, anti-poverty efforts, crime levels, and the nation? Or is her point that whatever becomes widespread and common is, by definition, responsible conduct? Either position is ethically untenable. One might even say short-sighted, ignorant, and dumb.

It is fascinating, though. Actress Jamie Lyn Spears became pregnant at 16, and cultural watchdogs were horrified because of the dangerous message her condition sent to the teen and pre-teen fans of her wholesome show on Nickelodeon. But even kids recognize that kids do stupid, irresponsible things. Sanchez is an adult, and not only an adult, but an adult entrusted with making our nation’s laws. The damaging influence of her planned unmarried pregnancy, as well as her enthusiastic embrace of it as a responsible choice, is infinitely more significant and deplorable that the pregnancy of Spears.

Meanwhile, the Congresswoman apparently could not care less, nor grasp how irresponsible she is. Might she be married before the baby arrives, the LA Times interviewer asks? Oh, probably not, she giggles. Both she and her unofficial fiancée come from big families, and "I want the big wedding. That’s going to take some time to plan." Sure—the importance of being a responsible national figure and role-model is insignificant compared to one’s desire for a big wedding. Glad to see you have your priorities straight, Congresswoman.

Am I the crazy one? I believe that elected officials and high-profile individuals have a duty to consider their obligations and the messages sent by their conduct before they engage in activities that a private individual has every right to choose, irresponsible or not. I believe they have an ethical duty to act in accordance with the best interests of the public and the nation, even in their so-called “private lives,” even when their personal needs and desires point elsewhere. If they are not willing to make that sacrifice, that’s fine….but don’t run for Congress. Married Presidents should not seek or accept sexual favors from government interns. Aspiring presidents should not quietly listen to hateful, racist rants from their ministers. And Congresswomen should not emulate Murphy Brown.

Rep. Sanchez doesn’t see this. The media doesn’t see it either. But it couldn’t be more obvious to me.

Maybe I am crazy.


Update: May 12, 2009
Well, maybe I’m not crazy after all. Congresswoman Sanchez changed her mind, perhaps even because she saw the ethical light, and quietly got hitched a couple months before her baby was born. It was the right thing to do, for her child, her high office, and for the millions of impressionable young couples around the country who need responsible role models as they consider unwed parenthood. Now all she has to do is update her ill-considered and premature celebration of her own single-motherhood with an Emily Littella-like, “Never mind!”


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