Republican politician and Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is not a popular man among the American left.
He’s outspokenly a social conservative, and is strongly opposed to the liberal positions on a number of political issues that mean a lot to people, such as abortion, immigration, and gay rights. Dan Savage’s NSFW campaign to redefine “santorum” exemplifies the disrespect widely held for him.
Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Santorum’s position on abortion, particularly with regard to an incident in his own family some fifteen years ago, for which he has been widely criticised online.
While his wife was pregnant, she was told that a fatal defect in the fetus meant that it had no chance of surviving. They decided to opt for a “long-shot intrauterine surgery”, which unfortunately led to complications. Karen Santorum had an infection that needed some sort of intervention if it wasn’t going to kill her.
The medical recommendation was that the fetus be removed, or at the very least that antibiotics be administered, in order to save her life. Even in the latter case, though, this would likely induce labour, which would effectively kill the fetus, unviable though it was in any case. The Santorums agreed to the antibiotics.
The doctors wanted to do more to accelerate her labour and get her out of danger faster, but she refused. In the end, the child was delivered without any further intervention. As predicted, it was too undeveloped to have a chance of surviving, and died after a couple of hours.
Whether or not this set of events can be summarised by saying “Rick Santorum’s wife had an abortion” is a semantic matter. What seems clear is that these two people went through a difficult experience, where their concerns for personal safety butted up against the values they considered deeply important in an emotionally fraught context.
And both partners, judging by the report, seemed to understand at least some of the issues that people with difficulties in pregnancy face when making these kinds of decisions. Rick Santorum is quoted as saying:
Obviously, if it was a choice of whether both Karen and the child are going to die or just the child is going to die, I mean it’s a pretty easy call.
His wife Karen said:
If the physician came to me and said if we don’t deliver your baby in one hour you will be dead, yeah, I would have to do it.
These statements, and their actions, seem to contradict Santorum’s stated position on abortion – namely, that doctors who perform abortions should be charged with murder, with no exceptions. Even though it’s something he’s been through himself, and he’s had a chance to experience the complexities that can arise, and the fuzziness of the boundaries, he’s still apparently unwilling to allow that other people might face the same difficulties he and his wife did. That the conflicting emotions he must have felt when his wife’s life was in serious danger, the difficult and nuanced decisions, the extenuating circumstances, are all things which might apply to millions of other people. Those other people out there who aren’t Rick Santorum or his wife.
It’s a shame that such a prominent politician, even with personal experience of this ordeal, is still such a rigid thinker as to group together every other abortion out there as straight-forward unambiguous murders. And yet, the fact that he and his wife went through something difficult themselves seems to have led to him being hated even more by some commentators, which I don’t think is constructive.
Rick Santorum’s position on abortion appears to be ideological, and is not one I agree with. But he was trying his best to act morally on that day in October 1996, and the result wasn’t close to being one of his great moral failings. He’s made statements since then which are unthinkingly inhumane, and bafflingly lacking in sympathy. There’s plenty of room for them to be criticised without employing his own tactics, of demonising his decision-making at a time when an abortion might have saved his wife’s life.