Less vitriol, more debate, better politics

Published 4:03 pm Friday, January 20, 2012

I can’t actually begin this column the way I want to, with a quote from a presidential-election-themed Craigslist ad I saw this week, one so vicious that it shouldn’t be given wider publicity. Mercifully, politics isn’t all partisan vitriol, as people who listen carefully to candidates on the campaign trail know well.   

At a town hall event at a packed barn in Hollis, N.H., a Democratic voter asked Rick Santorum a question about abortion. A transplant from Santorum’s own Keystone State, the questioner’s childhood pediatrician is now Santorum’s father-in-law, making an immediate connection with the candidate. “We’re a lot alike, and I love that. We’re also very different,” she told Santorum, before asking him how he would sell his conservative pro-life stance to her and other pro-choice voters skeptical of his candidacy.

“When I decided to run for the Congress, I was sort of an agnostic on the abortion issue,” Santorum said, not for the first time. He’s known by now for not being a sound-bite kind of candidate — he’s been likened to a professor or social studies teacher in the press deluge that followed his Iowa caucus showing — and this was no exception.

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Santorum described how he talked to his future father-in-law, the pediatrician, about the issue before he ran for Congress, gaining a valuable perspective.

“From a scientific point of view, there really isn’t an argument as to whether that’s a human life, Santorum continued. “It is. The question is whether that human life is a life that should be protected under the Constitution. That’s the debate. And at what point in time does that human being attain rights that protect its life, to protect it from having its life taken. That’s really the issue here.”   

The questioner, unsurprisingly, responded not with a question or criticism but a general plea of sorts, urging Santorum to respect that her and her fellow believers’ pro-abortion stance comes from a similar concern for human welfare as Santorum’s very different view.

The candidate responded by stressing the importance of debating the issue openly and honestly, and bemoaning the lack of opportunity to do just that in the public square.

The debate over who can “live free or die,” Santorum said, has been essentially taken off the table or moved onto the sidelines — left to incremental legislative efforts and funding fights by a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that declared the ending of an unborn child’s life a Constitutional right.

“A repeal of Roe v. Wade,” he readily admitted, would put abortion in “an arena where the American public can make this decision.”

Most people engaged in the pro-life cause are not carrying placards or marching in the streets — they’re helping to make the difficult lives of those faced with an unexpected and perhaps unwanted child a little easier. If pro-choice citizens are willing to listen, as this woman in New Hampshire was, something remarkable could begin to happen.

In 1973, the Supreme Court began a cultural rewiring that made abortion into not only a right but a commonly practiced and accepted procedure. If we get the chance to have the debate outlined above, I suspect most of us would want it to be a reasonable discussion along the lines these two people of differing political views and parties began one January Saturday in New Hampshire.

(Kathryn Lopez can be contacted at klopez@nationalreview.com.)