University of Hawaii
I want to understand Rick Santorum. Republican candidates routinely compete for the most extreme position from which to oppose women’s reproductive freedom, but Santorum is distinct. He is not simply calling for a ruthless public policy limiting women’s access to abortion: he is performing the savage grief of the bereaved parent, enacting the wild, aggressive distress that brings many conservative Christian women to the ranks of the anti-choice movement. His passionate participation in a realm of sorrow usually reserved for women, and usually unrecognized in civic life, brings public, male recognition to their suffering. To respond, feminists need to intervene in this alliance, not by minimizing the pain associated with child loss but by recognizing it differently.
Santorum marshals a fiery combination of rage and grief to call for reproductive unfreedom for women. This is a potent emotional brew that often works, politically, by lionizing the perceived suffering of some (in this case, unborn children) while demonizing the pain of others (here, women whose desire to control their fertility is recast as selfish, thoughtless, and murderous).
Santorum demands control over women's bodies, his story goes, in order to protect babies, and that calculation often works, politically, as well. Enough women want to protect babies at any cost that they will cooperate in their own loss of freedom, and enough men want to control women's sexuality, and perhaps protect the unborn as well, that they enthusiastically go along. Leaders of conservative evangelical groups, nearly all of them men, have rallied around Santorum because they think Romney is not sufficiently hard-line on denying women medical care if it relates to their control of their reproduction. For evangelical women voters, Romney loses out to Santorum not so much because of policy differences but because of the raging emotional economies through which relatively small differences on reproductive policies are being cast.
It is on the terrain of emotional labor, of competing efforts to marshal pity for some victims and contempt for others, that the abortion debates are being fought. Senator Barbara Boxer, defending the legality of late term abortion, described the women lobbying to retain the provision with these words: ‘They’re crying, they’re crying because we’re trying to take away an option.” Then-Senator Santorum proudly, defiantly, repainted these women as the aggressors against helpless , victimized babies: “I got up afterwards and I said, I repeated the story about these women crying, and I said, ‘We would be deafened by the cries of the children who are not here to cry because of these procedures.’” Mackenzie Weinger, “Rick Santorum Stresses Evangelical Pitch.”
It is the hypothetical cries of the unborn that move Santorum’s women. Numerous scholars interviewing evangelical women have found that, while right wing Christian men may be motivated by rage at the violation of proper family values, their female equivalents, in contrast, are likely to be motivated more from grief at a loss related to birth or children. The life stories of anti-choice activist women, far more than their pro-choice opponents, are littered with reproductive losses: devastating miscarriages, infertility, death or serious illness of a child, or some other trauma related to childbearing unite as many as one third of anti-choice women. They share intense narratives of inconsolable suffering and desperately sought solace: “I lost a baby.” “I grieved for years.” “In a way it becomes as though [all] abortions were my children.”Of all these wells of sadness, the devaluing of “imperfect” children is often the most devastating for their mothers: Santorum’s lost son and disabled daughter, I speculate, come to stand for the lost and endangered children and potential children these women grieve. Santorum may be a man, but in the emotional economy of reproductive rights he is with the women, his masculine privilege enhancing the public import of their usually private grief. And the Republican women, at least those voting in Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesotta are with him. Nancy Pence of Concerned Women of America, concurs:
“After playing the field for weeks, women in Iowa finally settled down with their man. In fact, CNN entrance polls showed that the majority of women were supporting Santorum at twenty-seven percent (despite the sweater vest)….Santorum's appeal to women and evangelicals centers on a desire for authenticity. Rick's been consistent in behavior and record. His stance on the sanctity of life and traditional marriage gained the voters' attention. His personal story of a strong marriage and eight children, including baby Gabriel, who died, and beautiful Bella, who is severely handicapped and the apple of her father's eye, is beyond reproach.”
“Beyond reproach” is Pence’s ham-handed summary of how the personal has become political for many evangelical women: Santorum’s grief at the loss of a child, and his fierce dedication to the damaged child remaining, let these women see their own deep grief reflected and honored.
Santorum recalled how devastated he was when his son died, and the news of his daughter’s condition seemed too much to handle:
“I was the rock, I was the guy holding everything together as the chaos was around. And I did so. I loved her. But I had lost a child. And as I think you can see, it still hurts. I had put everything into that little boy Gabriel and it crushed me. And I felt maybe, maybe if I love my daughter but just hold back a little just so I don’t get hurt so bad. And then she got sick,” he said.
Then Santorum told the hushed crowd that his daughter got better — and taught him about his relationship with God.
“The gift that Bella gave me was the gift of looking at this disabled child, who in the world’s view will never be able to do anything for me, other than love me,” Santorum said. “She is just a font of love, as far as I’m concerned, and she made me understand that’s how the father looks at me – disabled – unable to do anything for him except love him. And he loves me unconditionally.”
Thus, Santorum’s strongest assault on reproductive rights comes through the backdoor: his personal grief over the death of his premature infant son, and the tragedy of his daughter’s genetic disability, allies him with bereaved evangelical women and their spokespersons far more effectively than do abstract arguments about policies and their implementation.
Effectively opposing Rick Santorum requires sustained attention to the concerns of his evangelical base. Opposing Santorum’s extreme anti-choice position through mockery is counterproductive. For instance, Lee Drutman from The Sunlight Foundation ridicules Santorum for being obsessed with anything “gynecological” for his successful criminalization of late-term abortions, and adamant advocacy for the rights of the unborn over any health or life consideration of the mother. Andrea Stone, writing for the Huffington Post, repeats the line that Santorum is “obsessed with all things gynecological.” Derision of “things gynecological” subtly jeers at women’s bodies as much as at anti-choice activism. It is not a victory for feminism if Santorum is defeated because he cares about reproduction, since feminists care very much about reproduction as well.
Opposing Santorum by focusing on his personal ethical dilemmas is similarly unhelpful. For instance, some critics have accused the Santorums of hypocrisy, in that the pitocin-induced labor that produced their doomed 20 week old infant was not unlike the medical procedures against which Santorum rages. Other critics are repulsed by the Santorums’ decision to take the infant’s corpse home for the older children to kiss and fondle. Still others find him inconsistent on anti-choice legislation in his Senate career, when, like all Senators, he sometimes had to vote on omnibus spending bills packaging a number of issues into a single vote. But these responses miss the main political point: Rick Santorum’s public grief, his savage heartbreak over the loss of a child, his exalted loyalty to the remaining disabled child, is exactly the source of his legitimacy over other men who merely oppose abortion. He willingly, exquisitely performs publicly the grief and outrage that the anti-choice women feel.
Defenders of the Santorums are more perceptive in seeing what is at stake: potential hypocrisy or disquieting death rituals are not the point; the point, rather, is a fierce public legitimation of reproductive grief. That is what pulls evangelical women toward Santorum, and it may be right wing men’s realization of the likely electoral support of evangelical women that has brought the country’s male fundamentalist leadership into Santorum’s camp.
In this moment of his campaign, Santorum is the rightful heir of Sarah Palin, whose folksy appeal to right wing women is largely based on the compassion calculus embodied by the quiet Downs Syndrome baby in her arms and the strapping son in military uniform by her side. If, in the long run, it is not Rick Santorum, then there will be another standard bearer for this violent compassion. If not this election, then the next. According to Mackenzie Weinger’s account of then-Senator Santorum’s confrontation with Senator Boxer, when Santorum invoked the tears of the unborn, “The crowd responded with the biggest cheers of the night.” Conservative evangelical women’s well of birth-grief will not soon wear itself out or retreat from public life.
If I am correct that ridicule and charges of hypocrisy are inadequate grounds for critique, then how should feminists proceed? I have two suggestions. First, we should recognize and honor the profound sadness, as well as the potential understanding, occasioned in birth loss.
Pro-choice women also struggle with reproductive loss, and it does us no service to overlook or minimize the grief we share with our anti-choice opponents. When I miscarried in the first trimester of my second pregnancy, I was bereft. Well-meaning people who encouraged me to cheer up, since I could always have more children, totally missed the point. That baby would never be. I desperately mourned the loss of that baby. Pseudo-precise definitions of when, exactly, the potential life became an actual life were irrelevant. Further, the loss of a life growing inside my own was confusing: who, exactly, ceased to be? Was it my fault? It does not compromise our pro-choice politics to mourn a baby who could have been but is not. In fact, it could enhance our politics by taking seriously the disquieting presence of death in life, and help us to take in death as a part of life, not its opposite.
Second, the best way to act on concern for the not-yet-born is to work for equality between men and women. The great and utter tragedy of the abortion debates is that if, as a culture, we truly wanted to protect babies, then we would empower women over all aspects of their lives. Global development projects find, over and over, that the best way to raise children's standard of living is to channel resources to their mothers. If women are educated and have access to opportunity, including the opportunity to control their own fertility, then children are far more likely to flourish. But Rick Santorum’s candidacy shows us that actual existing children and their mothers are far less important, politically, than the heady brew of parental grief and public solace Santorum enacts.
|Worth noting that in 2010 19 percent of children in Santorum's Home State of Pennsylvania live in Poverty|
*My thanks to Sharain Naylor and Carolyn DiPalma for helping me think about Rick Santorum and role of child loss in politics.