Rick Santorum and more: How social issues intruded on 2012 campaign

In an election year that was supposed to be all about economic recovery, social values having to do with sex – birth control, abortion, and gay marriage – are playing prominent roles.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, in Georgetown, Ohio.
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In an election year that was supposed to be all about getting the country out of its economic doldrums, social values – mainly having to do with sex – have intruded big time. Largely, but not exclusively, it’s the realm of Rick Santorum.

In some cases (birth control vs. religious beliefs), they’ve taken firm root in the presidential election. In others (abortion and same-sex marriage), they lurk about the periphery – likely to inject themselves more deeply as the nominating process sorts itself out.

President Obama’s policy move requiring schools, hospitals, and other religious institutions to provide birth control to employees – even though it was adjusted to make insurance companies and not the institutions themselves responsible – continues to gain political traction left and right.

Recommended: Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments

To conservatives, it’s all about government intrusion into religious beliefs and practices. To liberals, it’s about personal choice and women’s rights in the most private of issues.

Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments

A congressional hearing this past week illustrated the heated divide. On an issue of particular importance to women, the hearing on Obama’s birth control policy, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, began with a panel of religious leaders – all of them men.

"I look at this panel, and I don't see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventative health care services, including family planning,” complained Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, one of several women lawmakers who walked out in protest.

“Where are the women?” she asked.

Meanwhile, same sex marriage was making news in three states. With a vote in the state legislature, Washington State was on track to become the seventh state where couples of the same gender could legally marry. New Jersey lawmakers approved gay marriage as well, although Gov. Chris Christie – frequently mentioned as a Republican vice presidential candidate – quickly vetoed it in favor of a voter referendum on the issue.

State legislators in Maryland Friday afternoon approved a new law allowing gay marriage, which Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley supports. Like New Jersey, opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland vow to take it to a referendum, where – if the voting history in many other states is a guide – chances are it’ll be defeated

Abortion has been a hot-button political issue ever since the US Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. But it’s taken another twist lately as opponents of legalized abortion seek to change the law or at least restrict the practice.

Another Republican governor who could be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee – Bob McDonnell in Virginia – says he’ll sign just-passed legislation that would force all women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound procedure. Not only is that physically invasive and medically unnecessary, critics say, but it requires that women who decline to view the ultrasound image or listen to the fetal heartbeat have that fact recorded in their medical record.

(“I guess they were all out of scarlet letters in Richmond,” observed Slate legal affairs writer Dahlia Lithwick.)

In the presidential race, GOP hopeful Rick Santorum has been the most outspoken on such issues.

Santorum says he would bring back the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals in the military, favors a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and has said that as president he would talk about “the dangers of contraception in this country.”

Santorum also wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned. (He has said a woman who becomes pregnant through rape should "make the best out of a bad situation")

How do most Americans feel about all of this?

By about two-to-one, according to public opinion surveys, Americans do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

As of last year, polls began showing that a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage.

Generally speaking, birth control is mostly a settled issue too, and that includes for most Catholics. (Only two percent of Catholic women rely wholly on the “rhythm method” allowed under church doctrine.)

Regarding “religiously-affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university,” respondents to a CBS News/New York Times poll last week were asked: “Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees?" Sixty-one percent said “yes,” 31 percent said “no.”

In their party’s primary elections and caucuses, Republicans know they face voters who are a lot more socially conservative than the general electorate. Hence the deference to “family values” positions.

But for Santorum – to his credit, say supporters – his positions on abortion, gay rights, and birth control are rock-solid and heartfelt. Still, having moved into frontrunner status, even he realizes that there are limits to what he can espouse.

Seeking to clarify the difference between personal belief and political reality the other day he said, "My position is birth control can and should be available.”

Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments

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