The Santorum Legacy: The Fertility Wars

That Rick Santorum made it this far in the GOP primary shows just how much his views on sex and reproduction resonate with the most religious part of Republican base. The fact that he made it this far by attempting to relitigate the importance, usefulness, and morality of contraception, and getting the country to even discuss it, shows how much Mitt Romney will be forced to contend with the mark Santorum has left on the campaign.

To be sure, with or without Santorum, Romney would have had to address the contraception coverage mandate that has revitalized an anti-contraception movement in the guise of “religious freedom.” But it was Santorum who first brought issues of sex and reproduction to the fore of the presidential campaign, even before the insurance coverage issue made national headlines.

Just days after he won the Iowa caucuses (at the time, he was a close second until additional votes were found and counted), Santorum began the race to the dark ages:

Rick Santorum thinks Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that invalidated criminal bans on contraception, was wrongly decided. He’s off the deep-end on this one, and completely out of touch even with his fellow Catholics, but his statement provoked an exchange at last night’s debate about whether states should be permitted to ban birth control. 

Mitt Romney feigned surprise — and emphasized that he would be absolutely, positively against banning birth control — but the moderators failed to ask him about his enthusiastic support for “personhood” bills that would effectively ban certain kinds of birth control (not to mention fertility treatments). Santorum turned the question to be all about the Griswold ruling on a “penumbra” of rights created under the constitution, anathema to conservatives because of how it underpins Roe v. Wade, and, as Chris Geidner points outLawrence v. Texas. They claim these rights are not actually found in the Constitution but were created by “activist judges” — this from the people who think the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection to fertilized eggs.

At his press conference today, Santorum alluded to reproduction and procreation by praising the family as “the moral enterprise that is America,” and by specifically thanking the 19 Kids and Counting Duggars for campaigning for him. It might have sounded like a standard political homage to wholesome family life, but to anyone who knows Santorum’s views, it was an homage to uber-fertility. As Kathryn Joyce noted here last week, it rings of Quiverfull:

It’s the movement that looks to the Duggar family as de facto spokespeople (even if the Duggars have often hedged whether or not they consider themselves a part of it), and that so venerates the role of proud “patriarch” fathers leading their families—comparing them to CEOs and generals—that it’s easy to see where Harris’ appraisal of Santorum’s family-man qualifications come from. In this election, and the birth control debate that has become a significant part of its soundtrack, the convictions of the Quiverfull community seem to have made a mainstream debut.

Santorum’s speech this afternoon was suffused with other religious imagery, calling Good Friday his family’s “passion play” because of his daughter Bella’s hospitalization; he talked about “witnessing” for Americans’ stories and voices, and belief in miracles. Miracles, that is, for the true believers, not the Kennedys who want to keep religion out of governing, or the mainline Protestants whose congregations are supposedly in shambles, or the believers in “phony religion.” 

Santorum brought rhetoric into the race that many conservative activists routinely deploy but few politicians with national aspirations dare to use. “We were winning in a very different way, we were winning hearts, we were raising issues that other people didn’t want to raise,” Santorum said today. Many of his fellow Republicans probably didn’t want him to raise them, and now they’re stuck with them, even with Santorum gone.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email