Collision of Reality and Ideology: Karen Santorum’s Past and Rick Santorum’s Vision of Your Future

Before marrying Rick Santorum, Karen Santorum lived with a pro-choice Ob-Gyn 40 years her senior. Today, Santorum the candidate believes the government should be able to ban contraception and abortion, and criminalize extra-marital sex and gay sex among other things. The Senator’s fervent desire to deny the rest of us the sexual and reproductive choices that his own wife once enjoyed is breathtakingly hypocritical and cruel.  

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended at 3:02 pm on Monday, January 9th, 2012 to correct an error. A case cited in the original version as Lawrence v Kansas should have been Lawrence v Texas. The text now reflects the correct citation.

“When she met Rick, Karen was living with Tom Allen, an OBGYN who in the early 1970s cofounded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic. It was a somewhat unusual pairing. Allen was the doctor who delivered Karen. She began living with him while an undergraduate nursing student at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.  She was in her early 20s, he was in his 60s…..‘When she moved out to go be with Rick, she told me I’d like him, that he was pro-choice’ said Allen.’”

The above quote is from an article on Senator Rick Santorum first published in a Philadelphia weekly in 2005, with similar material later repeated in U.S.News and World Report.  Normally, I feel that the past sexual history of a candidate’s spouse should be off limits to journalists and bloggers. But given Santorum’s rising fortunes as a serious candidate for the presidency, and in particular, his astonishing views on sexuality and contraception, I believe that attention to Karen Santorum’s past is warranted in this instance.

Here, as reported by the journalist Michelle Goldberg, is a summary of the Senator’s position on these topics: “It’s [contraception] not OK. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Included in this is birth control used by married couples. Sex, he said, is ‘supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal and unitive, but also procreative. Most presidents don’t talk about such things’, he said, but ‘these are important public policy issues. They have profound impact on the health of our society.’”

Santorum also believes the government should be able to ban adultery and gay sex. Here is his comment to the press, expressing his disapproval of the 2003 Lawrence v Texas decision, in which the Supreme Court overturned Texas’ anti-sodomy law:

“And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

In recent days, Santorum has restated his belief that states have the right to outlaw birth control.  As he told ABC news, “The state has a right to do that… It is not a constitutional right, the state has the right to pass whatever statues they have.” (The Senator, trained as a lawyer, evidently has forgotten, or chooses to ignore, that in the 1965 Supreme Court decision, Griswold v Connecticut, the Court found  such a constitutional right).

What does all this have to with Karen Santorum’s past, before her marriage to the Senator?  In simplest terms, Mrs. Santorum was living in a situation–unmarried but cohabitating, and presumably using birth control—that has become only more common in American society since the late 1980s, when she lived with Dr. Allen. (Indeed, the only difference between Karen Santorum and millions of other Americans in similar circumstances, then and now, was the unusually large gap in age between her and her partner).  

Currently married couples form less than half the households in the U.S. (with many cohabitating couples eventually going on to marry, though obviously, as in the case of Karen Santorum, not all do).  Moreover, premarital sex, whether or not it takes place in the context of a cohabitating household, is nearly universal in the U.S. and has been so for decades. With respect to contraception, some 98 percent of American women who have had sexual intercourse report using contraception at least some of the time to prevent pregnancy.  With respect to abortion, about which, if the article cited above is correct, apparently both Santorums once approved, approximately one out of three American women will have this procedure by the age of 45.

In short, Rick Santorum’s stated policy positions, which include not only his well known obsession with abolishing legal abortion, but also his opposition to birth control and all nonprocreative sexual acts, are greatly out of step with the lives of the vast majority of Americans.  Clearly, the Santorums have changed their views over time on the issues of premarital sex and contraception as well as abortion, moving in a far more conservative direction. The couple has attributed these changes to a deepening religious faith, and such new beliefs are of course their right. But the Senator’s fervent desire to deny the rest of us the sexual and reproductive choices that his own wife once enjoyed is breathtakingly hypocritical and cruel.