The Gifts and Perils of Rick Santorum Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Years back, I was making the rounds on Capitol Hill, trying to solicit support for our “modest first step” on abortion, the bill that would protect the child who survived the abortion. With my friend Jeffrey Bell, I went to visit Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.  Jeff remarked that Santorum was one willing “to pull the trigger” – to make the decision to act and take on the responsibility of introducing and defending the bill. 

In the course of our discussion, I recalled a line cited by Justice Powell in one of the recent cases on abortion: He noted the comments on one doctor saying that the “right to abortion” meant the right to an “effective abortion,” or a dead child. Justice Powell pronounced that statement be “remarkable” – from which one pro-life lawyer concluded that the Court would of course reject that position.

But Santorum instantly noted his astonishment: to say that an argument is “remarkable” is not to say that it is wrong or explain wherein it is wrong. Santorum grasped at once what others would fail entirely to notice. He did introduce our bill, and he showed himself able to explain and defend that bill at every level – as indeed he would take the lead in introducing and defending virtually every pro-life measure in the time he served in the Senate.

Santorum has made his own entrance now into the presidential contest, joining a roster of pro-life candidates lining up in the debates. Like Tim Pawlenty and others, he is starting with low numbers in the polls. The smart money has been pessimistic about his chances, unless he manages to ignite something. But the format of these debates makes it quite hard to take hold of any issue for more than a minute. And yet anyone who thinks it important for the pro-life argument to be sounded at its deepest level would want to see Santorum have the chance to make that argument in the debate, if for no other reason than to draw out the other candidates, teach them how to argue the case, and challenge them in turn to come up to the level of Rick Santorum’s understanding.


       Pro-life candidate Rick Santorum

Hence, the surprise this past week when a thoughtful pro-life commentator came down heavily on Rick Santorum when he fell into a rare blunder. In an extended interview on “Meet the Press,” he was asked whether he would hold to his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Santorum did hold to his opposition, but he was criticized for casting his understanding in terms of mere “belief” and personal opinion: 

I believe that life begins at conception, and that that life should be . . . guaranteed under the Constitution. That is a person, in my opinion. . . . That would be taking a life, and, and I believe that, that any doctor who performs an abortion should be criminally charged for doing so. [Italics added.]

The criticism was that Santorum had fallen into the habit long absorbed by the defenders of abortion, the habit of treating the human standing of the child as though it had no objective truth. But this was of course mainly a slip into a manner of speaking quite casual and familiar.  And in the same interview Santorum did assert that the offspring “at conception . . . is biologically human, and it's alive. It’s a human life, it should be a person under the Constitution.” 

Still, Santorum knows as well as anyone that he made a serious slip. The tough question, though, is just what a public man has time to explain in a manner of seconds to an interviewer who will not have patience to hear the fuller explanation. We find ourselves wishing we could administer an immediate jolt to the interviewer.

It would be so tempting to point out that the question could make sense in the first place only to one who knows virtually nothing about biology or the pro-life argument. Does he not know that the pro-life position is predicated on the recognition that the child in the womb is nothing other than an “innocent” human being – that the child cannot possibly be charged with any intention of harming the woman who is bearing him? 

Is the interviewer suggesting that the child has somehow absorbed the fault for the wrong of the rape or incest? If not, how could it make sense for him to ask whether we would make a principled exception here to resist the taking of innocent life? We may have to make a prudential accommodation for a current of passion running through the public on this matter, but that is quite separate from accepting any principled ground of justification for such an “exception.”   

We can only hope that a public brought to understanding the wrong of taking innocent life in the womb will help to form a climate of opinion in which a victim of rape and incest would find support for bringing her child to birth.

The deeper lesson to be taught here is that the question posed on rape and incest is pervaded by all of the glib premises that are packed into the assumption of a “right to abortion.” The candidate who summons the art to unsettle an interviewer and break that news out to the public will be marked as a preeminent pro-life teacher – and a most plausible candidate for president.


Hadley Arkes
is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at AmherstCollege. His most recent book is 
Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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