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Santorum’s Pro-Life Credibility
His family has embraced life in all its glory and heartbreak.

Rick Santorum in Osceola, Iowa, Dec. 19, 2011

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Rich Lowry

Rick Santorum’s critics consider him the perfect representative of the pro-life cause. For them, he’s sanctimonious, rigid, and a little weird. They couldn’t invent a better object for their scorn, at least not this side of Sarah Palin.

But Santorum truly is an excellent representative of his cause. Perhaps no politician in our national life has been so pointedly forced by circumstances to live up to his creed. If Santorum can seem too blithe and self-assured when he talks the talk, he has painfully walked the walk. The Santorums lost one child shortly after childbirth and have another who survived despite a grave, usually fatal, genetic disorder.   

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Santorum’s accounts of these trials have been some of the most moving moments on the Republican campaign trail. The phrase “pro-life” is considered a tendentious label by supporters of abortion rights, but the Santorums show how apt it is. They have embraced life in all its glory and heartbreak, with a devotion borne of their ideals and a humility brought by their experience.

Santorum’s wife, Karen — now the mother of seven — was pregnant when the then-Pennsylvania senator was leading the fight in the mid-1990s against partial-birth abortion. The couple learned that the fetus had a small, although usually fatal, defect. Doctors suggested a long-shot procedure that worked, but with risk of infection. Soon, Karen had a 101 temperature on the way to 105.

Karen began to go into labor. On a sonogram, she could see her healthy baby. She knew that if she delivered him now, at just 20 weeks, he wouldn’t live. Delirious with fever, she begged the doctors to stop her labor at the risk of her own life. In the end, she delivered Gabriel Michael, who lived two hours.

“I knew,” she told The New Yorker, “I was going to give birth and I would not hear the baby cry.” A former neonatal nurse, Karen couldn’t bear to send the baby to the morgue. She and Rick stayed in the hospital room with him overnight and then brought him home so their other kids could see their brother before he was buried.

This is where the “controversy” comes in. Liberal Fox News commentator Alan Colmes said the other day that it was “crazy” for the Santorums to bring home the baby, a comment he quickly apologized for. In more judicious language, The New York Times Magazine wrote in a Santorum profile that some would find the Santorums’ decision “discomforting, strange, even ghoulish.” Have these people never heard of a wake?

How is a family supposed to deal with the death of a child? Among some on the left, there’s an instinctive reaction against how the Santorums handled their loss because the logic of abortion rights denies that there is any loss worth troubling over. The Santorums accepted their grief, and when life presented them with another wrenching challenge, accepted it in turn.

Karen gave birth years later to a daughter with trisomy 18, a usually fatal genetic disorder similar to Down syndrome. The Santorums took their daughter home with the warnings that she wouldn’t long survive ringing in their ears. They had to lobby the hospital to give them a prescription for oxygen. A doctor advised them, “You have to learn how to let go,” an anodyne sentiment with a sinister undercurrent. Heroic care kept Bella alive. In a heart-rending moment at an Iowa forum, Santorum related his crushing realization that he had quietly determined to love Bella less to cushion himself against her loss. She’s now three years old.

Santorum can come across like the Saturday Night Live version of Tim Tebow, who is so overeager when Jesus visits the Denver Broncos locker room that even his Lord and Savior asks him to “take it down a notch.” Santorum will always be a ripe political target. Few politicians, though, have his credibility as a champion of people who refuse to learn how to let go.

― Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2011 by King Features Syndicate



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