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The trials of Saint Santorum

Posted: February 28, 2012 11:05 a.m.
Updated: February 29, 2012 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- You've likely heard by now that the presidential election may pivot on the unlikely "controversy" of birth control.

This is the latest trope to evolve from a campaign that is already two years too long. A conspiracy-minded person might imagine that this faux battle over reproductive rights was designed to distract from other more pressing concerns and to demonize -- or would that be angelize? -- Republicans who, we're also told, want to turn back the clock to the 1950s.

But such a theory would require that Democrats be shrewder than is humanly possible, no? The Obama administration might have wished to provide insurance coverage for contraception -- a wish broadly embraced by most Americans -- but the president couldn't have predicted how the Catholic bishops would react, or that entire swaths of religious Americans would band together to oppose him.

He was just lucky. What manna to have the nation riveted on birth control in these economically challenging times. What lucre to have women on his side against those time-warped white guys who want to keep their women pregnant and confined to quarters. What a cherry on top that the two Republican front-runners look like they just stepped out of a large TV cabinet, circa 1957 -- slicked-back hair and sweater vest provided by central casting.

The problem, as with so many convenient narratives, is that it ain't quite so.

The leading role in this narrative is Rick Santorum, the surger in chief, who is now being characterized as a Neanderthal throwback for his personal belief that man should not interfere in the natural cycle of life, no matter how inconvenient the results. This includes not only opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, but also to artificial birth control. Mitt Romney, though he falls into the pro-life camp on the first two issues, has expressed views on contraception that any 21st-century Epicurus could embrace: "It's (contraception's) working just fine. Just leave it alone."

It is easy to pound Santorum, and no one makes it easier than Santorum himself. Never mind that he invokes Satan, claiming that the "Father of Lies" has his sights on the U.S., as Santorum did in 2008 at Ave Maria University in Florida. He has never met a question he wouldn't answer or a combatant he wouldn't engage. Thus, when a reporter asks whether he thinks states should be able to ban birth control, Santorum says yes, but ...

HEADLINE!!! "Santorum says states should be able to ban birth control!!!"

Except that's not what he meant, nor is it what he intends. Santorum was expressing a legal opinion, and his answer was within the context of whether states have any regulatory jurisdiction over the question. Otherwise, he has said repeatedly that he does not support banning contraceptives and that he would oppose any such efforts. Moreover, as a U.S. senator, Santorum voted to fund contraception through two international health programs that he aggressively pushed -- the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Contraception was incorporated as part of prevention.

This should come as no surprise if one understands Santorum's worldview. Everything stems from his allegiance to the Catholic Church'sÊteachings thatÊevery human life has equal value and dignity. The church's objection to birth control is based on concerns that sex without consequences would lead to men reducing women "to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of (their) own desires," as well as abuse of power by public authorities and a false sense of autonomy.

Within that framework, everything Santorum says and does makes sense, even if one doesn't agree. When he says that he doesn't think the government should fund prenatal testing because it leads to abortion, this is emotional Santorum, father of a disabled child and another who died hours after a premature birth. In both instances, many doctors would have recommended abortion, but Santorum believes that those lives, no matter how challenging, have intrinsic value.

Though Santorum's views are certainly controversial, his biggest problem isn't that he is out of step with mainstream America. His biggest problem is that he lacks prudence in picking his battles and his words. The American people are loath to elect a preacher or a prophet to lead them out of the desert of unemployment. And they are justified in worrying how such imprudence might translate in areas of far graver concern than whether Santorum doesn't personally practice birth control.

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