There is a lot of discussion on liberal blogs about how social über-conservative Rick Santorum's wife might or might not have had an abortion. I find the coverage of this story troubling on at least two levels.
First, I can hardly believe how callous every journalist writing about this seems to be. Don't get me wrong: I have slightly less respect for the Senator than I do for toxic pond scum. But even pond scum don't deserve to go through such a horrific experience. We're talking about a couple who saw their fourth child die in just about the worst way imaginable, nearly taking his mother with him. For me the story only confirms how immoral and dangerous the Santorums' "values" are, but can't we show a little compassion for what they went through, no matter their somewhat creepy reaction to it? The only trace of sentiment I've read comes from Irin Carmon, who feels "uncomfortable about having gone this far up Karen Santorum's womb." So pain and fear and sickness and a child dying in his father's arms while his mother fights for her life don't faze you, but you're really uncomfortable talking about anatomy? Unbelievable.
The more important question is why are critics content merely with charging Rick Santorum of hypocrisy? It is by far the least onerous charge one can make about him based on this story, and besides, it is completely false. On the contrary, this confirms two things about Santorum's position on abortion: he and his wife fundamentally believe in it, and it is unambiguously immoral.
Shortly after having undergone risky intrauterine surgery to correct a malformation while 19-weeks pregnant, Karen Santorum develops a high fever and rushes to the hospital with her husband. The doctors quickly tell them that she is only hours away from life-threatening septic shock and needs antibiotics. They also say her body is going to react by miscarrying to expel the source of the infection, and that they can give her drugs to ease the process. Karen answers "We’re not inducing labor, that’s an abortion. No way. That isn’t going to happen. I don’t care what happens." Later when labour starts as predicted she asks her doctors to "make it stop". They refuse. The baby is born, and dies a couple of hours later.
As gut-wrenchingly sad as this is, it also shows moral confusion on a scale that almost defies comprehension. What is the principle behind Karen saying "[…] that's an abortion. No way. That isn't going to happen. I don't care what happens."? It can't be the sanctity of life. If all human life is sacred, surely delaying labour is wrong when it puts a viable life at risk while doing nothing to save a doomed one. If the principle is not to artificially oppose nature, or God's will, then why attempt to correct the initial malformation with surgery? The only coherent way to reduce the Santorums' actions to fundamental principles is if one of these unquestioned principles is "Abortion is wrong. No matter the circumstances."
In the aftermath, Rick Santorum said: "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." Indeed, that seems a devastating but inescapable conclusion to me. But it is one that they only came to at the last possible moment. Of course no-one can blame them for what either of them said or did during such an emotionally trying event, but this sentence is not a direct quote relayed by innocent bystanders. Rather it is one of the rare quotes from the story as told by the Santorums themselves, after the fact, and they, with the benefit of hindsight, still chose to include the "No way I'm having an abortion" line. I can only assume they think this stance is morally laudable, despite the eventual inevitability of making the "pretty easy call" that, as Brad DeLong opines, is "one that Rick Santorum claims to be in favor of making a crime."
Athough most in the media apparently don't want to mention it, this moral confusion is not unconnected to the Santorums being catholic fundamentalists. Don't get me wrong: I know many Christians are horrified at the idea of making a life-saving operation criminal. Even in the United States, nearly two-thirds of Catholics don't agree that abortion is morally wrong in all cases. Catholicism is neither a required nor a sufficient condition for making the wrong moral choices in these matters. But I can't for the life of me imagine how a secular person could ever reach the moral position the Santorums found during this story. Their stance on abortion doesn't come from the sanctity of life, nor from respect for natural law. It is all about the church declaring that abortion is evil. If you genuinely believe the Pope to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, this is likely to trump all other considerations, be it medicine, common sense, or your responsibility to your already-born children. The sheer untenability of this position goes some way to explain falling church attendance in much of the world.
Thus the scariest thing about the Santorums is that they're not at all hypocrites: they're perfectly sincere. In matters of life-and-death, their first reference is the preachings of their church, above what the doctors tell them, above what simple common-sense would tell them is in the best interests of all their children — including those already born. And they believe this gives them the moral high-ground. Not only is Rick Santorum defending a position that many consider morally repugnant, he wants those who'd make a different choice to be prosecuted as murderers. And he thinks this gives him the moral high-ground.
In perhaps the most quoted passage of John Stuart Mill's autobiography, he describes his father's attitude towards religion thus:
"As it was, his aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind as that of Lucretius; he regarded it with the feeling due not a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality; by setting up factitious excellencies — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues; but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals, making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful."
Yes indeed, former Senator and presidential hopeful Santorum's "values" are not connected to the good of human kind, or even of this own family. Mill's father died in 1836, Lucretius around 55BC. Yet in the 21st century, their argument on religion's potentially toxic influence on morality remains frighteningly relevant.