I could begin this column with a quote from a post on the presidential election I saw on Craigslist this week, but it is so vicious — and violent — that I shall spare you. Mercifully, however, despite the savage activism by which the post was inspired, and which it joins, there is some difference this presidential-primary season. And I saw it on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
In a packed barn in Hollis, a Democrat asked Rick Santorum a question about abortion. She was a transplant from Santorum’s own Keystone State, and her pediatrician when she was growing up was Santorum’s future father-in-law. This gave her an immediate connection with the candidate: “We’re a lot alike, and I love that.” But “we’re also very different,” she told the candidate. She had a question about abortion.
“You want me and maybe others to change our beliefs, our values, our thoughts, and vote for you and the Republican party,” she suggested. “And I respect that. That’s what you should do. I’m not quite sure how to do it. I’m just dramatically involved in being pro-choice, which, to me, means pro-life. And you’re not pro-choice and you are pro-life, so we are both pro-life, but . . . we wouldn’t see it the same way. We don’t define it the same way. But how do you convince me to change?”
Not for the first time, Santorum admitted that at age 30, “when I decided to run for the Congress, I was sort of an agnostic on the abortion issue.” He “hadn’t really thought about abortion as an issue that much. . . . It wasn’t an issue that I really cared much about. But when I thought about running for office I knew . . . this is an issue people are going to care about.”
Santorum is well known for not being the sort of candidate who answers questions with sound bites — instead, he has been likened to a professor or social-studies teacher by journalists who started paying attention to him after his strong Iowa-caucus showing — and this was no exception.The former senator patiently described sitting down with the woman’s pediatrician, his future father-in-law, before he ran for Congress. Dr. Garver, he said, “walked me through . . . the process,” from “the standpoint of a scientist,” of “how human life begins, and at the moment of conception there is a unique individual, someone with a unique DNA who is alive.”
“From a scientific point of view, there really isn’t an argument as to whether that’s a human life,” Santorum continued, without challenge. “It is. The question is whether that human life is a life that should be protected under the Constitution. That’s the debate. At what point in time does that human being attain rights that protect its life, that protect it from having its life taken. That’s really the issue here.”
“People can disagree,” he continued. Then he moved on to the problem with treating persons differently, and with declaring that, at a certain developmental stage, a person “has less rights than everybody else.” If you look at that, or brain activity, or dependency, he suggested, and use such things as indicators of someone’s personhood, you open a dehumanizing door. “I just see a fact and I see a constitutional provision, and I can’t see why we should differentiate.”
The questioner responded not with a question or a criticism but with a general plea of sorts: “I’m very pro-life. I’m a professional — I’m a psychologist; I work with children. I’m pro-life. Look at us here, all of us are pro-life. But I’m also pro-choice. And that’s the difference. I want to respect you, and I do. I just would like you to respect me.”
Santorum returned with a plea of his own. “You have every right to come into the public square and make your case,” he told her. “Make your case to the people. I have every right, and I would argue both of us have an obligation if we feel passionately about it to come into the public square.”
This debate over who can “live free or die,” Santorum said in the Granite State, has been essentially taken off the table and pushed onto the sidelines. Ever since the Supreme Court decision 39 years ago that declared the ending of an unborn child’s life a “right,” those who disagree have had to depend on incremental legislation and funding fights. He described this as judicial tyranny, “robbing us of our right to have this debate in the public square and decide collectively what we believe in.”
“A repeal of Roe v. Wade,” he concluded, would put abortion in “an arena where the American public can make this decision.”
Every day around this country people do pro-life work. Most don’t carry placards or march in the streets, but they make choosing life seem a little more possible for a girl who is desperate and alone, or for a career woman with an unexpected new life on her hands, or for a man who didn’t expect to be a father.
In 1973, the Supreme Court began a cultural rewiring, by which abortion became not a just a right but even, in many ways, an expectation. If we ever get the chance to have this democratic debate, I suspect that most of us would want it to be along the lines of the reasonable discussion that these two began one January Saturday in New Hampshire.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.