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Friday, January 20, 2012

Op-Ed: Rick Santorum doesn't believe in the right to privacy. Is his wife still entitled to it?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 1:51 PM

"When you look at someone to determine whether they'd be the right person for public office, look at who they lay down with at night and what they believe in. Who is the person at their side who has ... the closest counselor to that person?"

-- Rick Santorum, during an appearance at the "Value Voters Summit" last October

Earlier this week, somebody took Rick Santorum up on the invitation to take a closer look at political spouses: The Daily Beast's's Nancy Hass reported the surprising news that during the 1980s, Santorum's wife Karen shacked up with a Pittsburgh obstetrician, Tom Allen, who provided abortions.

Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. "You have to understand," says Jeanne Clark, a longtime activist on women's rights issues here: "This isn't just another doctor who did abortions." Allen was a strong advocate for a woman's right to choose: "He was the most visible person on this issue here. He was the leader."

Yet as Hass' story makes clear, for several years Allen was in a live-in relationship with the future Mrs. Santorum -- who was then Karen Garver, a nursing student at Duquesne University. Among other disclosures, Hass depicts Garver providing informal support to at least one woman seeking an abortion:

In October 1983, Mary Greenberg ... flew to Pittsburgh to consult Allen about an abortion. He directed her to colleagues at the Women's Health Center; Karen, recalls Mary, immediately offered to accompany her to the clinic. "She told me it wasn’t that bad, that I shouldn’t be worried," says Mary, who ultimately went on her own, and met Allen and Garver for dinner later that night. "She was very supportive."

To some, the most surprising thing about the story is that Allen was four decades older than Karen Garver -- and that in fact, he'd delivered her as a baby. But perhaps equally surprising is the direction Garver’s life took once the relationship ended. (Hass ascribes the break-up to the fact that Allen didn't want children.) Today, after all, Karen Santorum is known as the author of a book, Letters to Gabriel, which stakes out a staunchly pro-life position while recounting a different part of her life story: the tragic death of a son. She is married to a former Senator who, in his own book, opined that "Too few of us dare say living together without the benefit of marriage is wrong."

Nor surprisingly, Hass' piece has outraged some conservatives, though just as unsurprisingly, it seems some in the pro-life fringe are citing the story to discredit him.

But generally, the story has been met with a yawn. While the Newsweek report has gotten some play from the New York Daily News, and some foreign papers, a Google news search suggests it has largely been ignored by major news organizations here. (Some have mentioned the piece in reporting on the pro-life attacks on Santorum, however.)

Among the media outlets that have ignored the story are both daily newspapers in Pittsburgh, where it all took place. Which may not be surprising: At least at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I'm told, reporters have been aware of the Garver/Allen romance for years. Columnist Sally Kalson, for one, acknowledges having known about the Allen/Garver romance, "from way, way back." In fact, Clark says that while she believes the story is "absolutely fair game," she figured it had never been written because "the story was so out there in public" -- as an open secret among Allen's wide circle of friends .

This isn't the first time the story has surfaced beyond that circle, only to disappear quickly beneath the waves; a 2005 Philadelphia City Paper story briefly noted Karen Santorum's relationship to Allen in a profile of the former Senator. And while I read that story, Karen Santorum’s background didn’t register with me at all. (The only part that stuck with me was the bit about Santorum shaking the reporter's hand after taking a leak.)

Of course, back in 2005, Santorum wasn't a credible candidate for president. Which raises the question: Is this story news today? Is it fair game to report on the personal life of a presidential candidate's wife ... when the conduct in question took place 30 years ago -- and before they even met?

Not everyone thinks it is.

"The journalistic issues here are pretty dicey," says Maggie Patterson, a Duquesne University journalism professor who teaches media ethics.

"There are a couple things that are problematic," Patterson says of the decision to publish. "One, [Karen Santorum] is not a candidate. People who are running for public office should not have to have family members dragged out for public scrutiny. The second is that it was a long time ago: How far back into a person's past life do you go? And the third thing is, so what? Are people not allowed to change their minds? I don't have any doubt that Santorum is sincerely a pro-life candidate. So what's the point? If at one point she had a different position, what does that have to do with the price of eggs?"

Of course, Karen Santorum is a public figure herself, having written a book about abortion. And as Clark puts it, "She's not like [former Democratic presidential candidate] Howard Dean's wife, who you never saw. You have a right to talk about people who are making public judgments about other people. And they are damaging other people's lives."

Kalson, of the Post-Gazette, agrees. "She has written a book about this, and they are very out front on the abortion issue," she points out. Even if Karen Santorum hadn't written the book, Kalson says, "she's married to a national candidate for the presidency, and everyone knows what happens to spouses in these situations. Theresa Heinz took it pretty tough." Indeed, the wife of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry ran into a buzzsaw of opposition, no small part of it from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (Meanwhile, both Pittsburgh papers successfully sought to open the formerly sealed will of Heinz's first husband, the late Pittsburgh-born Senator John Heinz.)

To take another example, during the 2000 election campaign, there was scattered reporting -- including from the Associated Press -- that Laura Bush, then Laura Welch and just 17, killed another driver after running a stop sign. She was never charged in the accident, which, like Santorum’s live-in relationship, took place before she met her future husband.

Kalson acknowledges that while "it does make me a little uneasy, you can't overlook the influence of spouses on each other." What's more, Kalson says, the story points up how abortion can be a more complicated issue than politicians like Santorum admit.

Clearly, Kalson contends, Karen Santorum "had no objection to abortion at the time [she was involved with Allen]. That doesn't mean her position today is illegitimate. But it does mean that her former position was also legitimate. And there are many people who are in favor of abortion rights today. She was once one of them, so surely she can see the other side. And I'm not sure that's true of her husband. "

(All of which raises an obvious question: If this is a worthy story, why hasn't Kalson, or someone else at the Post-Gazette, already written it? "I think you better ask [executive editor] David Shribman," says Kalson after a slight pause. Shribman had left town on a trip before we could connect; when I hear from him, I'll update his response.)

Duquesne's Maggie Patterson has also studied the abortion issue, having written a book about women who have confronted the choice to have one. (In fact, she interviewed Allen as part of the research for her book.) She agrees that the debate over abortion is toxic. It's "the most wedgey of the wedge issues," she says, and "we've ended up with bad policy as a result."

Patterson says the debate that should be happening around abortion concerns "why Americans have so many of them." When researching her book, she says, "I can't tell you the number of women who said, 'I had no choice BUT to get an abortion.'" A more serious discussion, Patterson says, would begin with reflecting that many developed countries with laxer abortion laws still have lower abortion rates -- in part because they have stronger social-welfare nets.

Women who are considering abortion, she says, aren't usually worried about the terms that define the public debate -- liberty and freedom. They worry about how they would care for their child, and for those already born. But instead of talking about those questions, the debate focuses on more limited debates over individual freedom and responsibility. "When we interviewed people about the decisions they made," Patterson says, "they would say, 'I feel like I see legitimacy on both sides. There must be something wrong with me.'"

But couldn't this look at Karen Santorum's past -- which suggests how even crusaders on the issue can feel ambivalence about it -- be an opportunity to widen discussion?

"I think there are justifications for looking at her past," Patterson allows. "But the political discourse is so bitter and divided. I'm not in favor of doing this in a way that is just more of that. If you go after him on this, are you driving the discourse further into the abyss?"

A healthier, more compassionate approach, she says, would be to approach Karen Santorum and say, "This story is leaking out. You have a chance to put this experience in your own terms." (Indeed, such a story could end up helping Santorum's political aspirations: As Kalson puts it, "There's nothing evangelicals love more than a convert.") But the Santorums, despite frequently discussing other parts of their personal history in depth, have never discussed this chapter of Karen Santorum's life. And they declined to comment for Hass' story at all. Should a reporter then drop the piece completely, thereby passing up a chance to have the kind of dialogue Patterson says is so needed?

"You're asking a very tough question," she says.

So where does all that leave us? Here's my own take, for what it's worth.

Perhaps very few politicians have scrambled the personal and political so thoroughly as Santorum. Indeed, it's not clear that he recognizes a distinction: At the heart of his political philosophy is a belief that when it comes to sexual conduct, Americans do not have the right to privacy ... because what they do in their bedrooms has a bearing on the overall direction of society. To take just one example:

"The battle we're engaged in right now is same sex marriage, ultimately that is the very foundation of our country, the family, what the family structure is going to look like ... One of the things that I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the sexual liberty idea and many in the Christian faith have said, you know contraception is OK. It's not OK because it's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

And don't be too sure that this is just some empty election-year platitude. Remember the Terri Schiavo case? As a Senator, he showed a willingness -- a zeal, actually -- to bring the force of government to bear on very private family matters. There's good reason to worry he'd engage in similarly heavy-handed behavior as President.

So Santorum's own behavior would clearly be fair game. But what of his wife's past?

It's clearly a closer call. But as Kalson says, there's ample precedent for coverage of spouses' wives. What's more, if you take the quote at the top of this article at face value, then Rick Santorum certainly seems to be inviting such scrutiny of his wife's moral principles.

It's a common bit of election-year pabulum to invoke your family as a source of strength and support, of course. But to my ear, Santorum is going beyond that. He's actually suggesting that his wife's beliefs and moral fiber are a reason to elect him to office.

And hey, it's not like it was my idea to make personal morality a matter for political discussion. Rick Santorum has done that, by publicly challenging the rights of gay and straight couples alike to live their lives as they see fit. As Amanda Marcotte recently put it in Slate:

This entire story reveals why the collapse between personal belief and policy advocacy is making this country collectively stupider by the minute ... It's a shame that such a fuss is being made over Karen Santorum's past. In a sane world, we'd be allowed to have our private lives be private. But since the Santorums want to strip you of your right to sexual privacy in order to have the government micromanage your sex lives, it's high time she be held to the standard she wants for you. After all, she's benefited long enough from the freedoms that she and her husband want to take away from everyone else.

But as Patterson points out, this argument boils down to "he started it." And the charge of hypocrisy cuts both ways. Part of what makes Santorum so controversial -- and so objectionable to people like, well, me -- is his position that privacy rights don't exist. But for those of us who think he's wrong, isn't it hypocritical to deny the privacy of his wife -- no matter how juicy the story? In fighting Santorum's monstrous political philosophy, do we risk becoming monstrous ourselves?

Maybe so. In any case, "This is a story a lot of mainstream journalists are going to be squeamish about," says Jeanne Clark. And it won't be the first time the Santorums have made them feel that way.

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