In an environment where every uterus in America is politicised territory, why should the candidates’ wives get a free pass? Aspiring Republican nominee Rick Santorum is very strongly anti-abortion – he opposes medical termination of pregnancy in almost all circumstances, including conceptions resulting from rape or incest. So the possibility that his wife received an abortion at 20 weeks because her own life was endangered by the pregnancy (as reported by The Daily Kos, not entirely accurately) is too tempting an example of hypocrisy for political opponents to resist.
Except, Santorum isn’t really a hypocrite: the anti-abortion bills he has sponsored and co-sponsored uniformly include an exception where the life of the mother is threatened. There’s something else: reading this 1997 interview, it’s clear from the way Santorum describes the procedure which saved his wife’s life that he doesn’t identify it as an abortion. In fact, Karen Santorum states that she asked doctors to stop her contractions, even as she was miscarrying a dead, infected foetus – a foetus which the couple are very firm in describing as a child. “I consider it a blessing that we found out about the problem, because he became very real to me,” says Rick Santorum. “He may not be perfect, he may not live long, but he’s my son.”
These words aren’t the grotesque sentiment of a pro-life bully, even if that’s what Santorum is a lot of the time; they’re the expression of a bereaved father’s grief. I disagree profoundly with Santorum’s policy on abortion, but that doesn’t give me any right to describe a managed miscarriage as an abortion, or to deny that the Santorums lost a baby. As one of the women quoted in the Mumsnet campaign to improve miscarriage care said last year, “It’s not just a foetus you’ve lost: it’s holding, feeding, burping your baby for the first time. It’s taking your child to school. It’s your future – and it’s gone.” Because contrary to what Santorum thinks, life doesn’t begin at conception. It begins when the pregnant woman decides that she is ready and able to have and support a child.
There’s no universal start point to individual human existence – a child lost before it’s even conceived might be as sincerely mourned as one stillborn at mid-term. Or a foetus might never become a child to the woman carrying it, in which case it’s the height of inhumanity to prevent her from ending the pregnancy. “I can honestly say that abortion was one of the least difficult decisions of my life,” writes Caitlin Moran. “To spend the rest of my life being responsible for another human being… might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do – to breaking point. The idea that I might not have a choice in the matter… seems both emotionally and physically barbaric.”
The whole point of being pro-choice should be to avoid the barbarism of enforcing your own moralism on someone else’s circumstances – and that means treating other people’s loss delicately, however insensitive they are to other people’s suffering. That doesn’t, however, oblige anyone to condone what sounds like an unnecessarily dangerous, and medically costly, effort for Karen Santorum to carry a fatally deformed foetus to term. The Daily Kos story accuses Karen Santorum of exercising a right her husband would deny the populace, but as we’ve seen, that’s not true at all: the couple’s account of the pregnancy is totally consistent with Rick Santorum’s politics. If anything, they were morally coherent to a fault, putting Karen’s life at risk for the sake of a rather shaky principle about the sanctity of the unborn child. The pro-choice side needs to point out the inhumanity of that situation without becoming monstrous itself.