For Santorums, personal tragedy turned political

Haunting the political landscape is the ghost (or soul or spirit or memory or image, depending on how you see these things) of Gabriel Michael Santorum. Born at 19 gestational weeks, too young to live outside the uterus, Gabriel died within two hours.

The story is well known. In October 1996, Karen Santorum underwent surgery to try to fix a fatal malfunction in the kidneys of the fetus. After the operation, she contracted an infection and she and her husband, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), were faced with a terrible choice: End the pregnancy or lose the mother.

“Rick cried and spoke to me softly,” writes Karen in her 1998 book, “Letters to Gabriel.” He spoke of their three living children. “They can’t live without their mother. Karen, you make our lives complete — please, it’s time — I love you so much.”

Karen took medicine that induced labor.

The Santorums’ loss, like that of any hoped-for pregnancy, is not a political event. It’s a personal tragedy. “I cradled his head between the ends of my middle and ring fingers,” wrote David Hlavsa of his stillborn son, born at 20 weeks, in an unforgettable 2008 essay in the New York Times, “his features peaceful, perfect, blank.” And though the way in which the Santorums chose to grieve is unusual, it is not unheard of. They brought the tiny body home, so their children could see it.  In a 2009 Newsweek story, Claudia Kalb wrote about photographers who, at the request of parents, take pictures of stillborn children as remembrances of lives not lived.

But Gabriel Michael Santorum has in the past month over become a political pawn. On the left, activists point to Gabriel as an example of Rick Santorum’s hypocrisy: How can he, who chose to terminate a pregnancy early, take a hard line against late-term abortion? On the right, activists see Gabriel as a person, a child, an angel in heaven — a point of view to which Karen subscribes.

“You were not a ‘fetus,’ you were our baby, fully formed and beautiful, just like a full term newborn only smaller,” she writes.

In truth, abortion is barely an afterthought in this election season: Zero percent of respondents said that it was the “single most important issue” in choosing a president, according to the latest Washington Post poll — and Mitt Romney, the front-runner, skipped an anti-abortion conference in South Carolina last week.

But you wouldn’t be able to discern that disinterest from all the heat and noise around abortion now. Karen’s book, which never made much of an impact upon publication, sells for $2,500 a copy on Amazon, and her husband’s popularity with white evangelical voters is credited in large part to the Gabriel story. Anti-abortion activists are preparing for Monday’s Right to Life rally and are planning to launch a graphic abortion video that makes the old, pro-choice coat-hanger signs look like Disney movies.

To me, though, the Gabriel story has a moral other than the one the Santorums intend to convey, and it’s this: Abortion is complicated. And private. More important, most people in the real world who are not running for public office agree with me. Americans understand exactly how complicated abortion — even in the first trimester, when nine out of 10 abortions occur — and they’ve made up their minds about it.

In sum: Abortion makes many Americans squeamish, but they want it to be legal (not unlike Romney’s stance when he was governor of Massachusetts). In a Time poll last summer, 64 percent of people said they thought a woman had the right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. In a Gallup poll around the same time, 77 percent said they thought abortion should sometimes or always be legal. The proportion who think abortion laws should be more restrictive than they are has hovered for a decade at about a third. And half of Americans, even those who think abortion should always be legal, also believe it’s morally wrong.

What has changed in the landscape of American abortion is not public opinion, but the recipients of abortions themselves. The number of abortions in America went down between 2000 and 2008, but the number of poor women who had them rose 18 percent. Women who have abortions are likely to have children at home, to be economically disadvantaged and to have a religious affiliation, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The income gap is at work in the abortion debate as well.

Politicians may not be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time, but people can. In real life, people who yearn for babies sometimes lose them. People who don’t want, can’t afford, can’t sustain or can’t nurture a child conceive. Real people understand that at any moment they, or someone they love, could find themselves in either situation.

“Letters to Gabriel” is a profound, morally complex tale, but its author only tells one side of the story.