Yesterday’s Thoughts

May 26, 2005

A Death in the Santorum Family

Lots of blogsphere reaction to last Sunday’s New York Time Magazine article about Rick Santorum.

This is the quote which is getting most of the attention:

The childbirth in 1996 was a source of terrible heartbreak — the couple were told by doctors early in the pregnancy that the baby Karen was carrying had a fatal defect and would survive only for a short time outside the womb. According to Karen Santorum’s book, “Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum,” she later developed a life-threatening intrauterine infection and a fever that reached nearly 105 degrees. She went into labor when she was 20 weeks pregnant. After resisting at first, she allowed doctors to give her the drug Pitocin to speed the birth. Gabriel lived just two hours.

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish — others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. “Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!” Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. “Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’ “

The reactions to this from most of the blogs I read (the liberal, progressive, reality-based community places you can see there on the left) are similar to this Metafilter post. The salient quote: “Ewwww!!!” (In all fairness, this post was closed after a short period.)

The author of the Times article, Michael Sokolove, was prescient in the use of the phrase “cultural divide.” This isn’t a religious issue, it is a cultural issue. The question is, what are we dividing?

Are we dividing parents from non-parents?

When a woman learns she is expecting a child, she shares this fact with her family, her friends and her community. If the child dies in utero this community has to be informed. For herself and her family the unborn child have already become part of the family. They have felt the child move and they have begun to envision a future that includes this child. When this future changes, the family must cope and adjust to a new future. Doing this without any contact with the dead child is difficult, how do you mourn the passing of something that never was? Perhaps the morning and the grief are easier to cope with in the presence of the body?

Are we dividing parents who have lost a child from those who have not?

If you empathized with my last example maybe you understood my words. If you do not empathize, I don’t know that you will. This grief of losing a very young child is complicated. I held my daughter for only a few moments after her still birth. The weight and heat and stillness of her body are still with me. I wish I had been more forceful and had held her longer. Taking her home for the night probably isn’t something I would have done, but I had no children at home to mourn her.

Are we dividing those who have experience of death from those who have not?

It is possible in modern American to live to an advanced age without ever having direct contact with a dead body. The dead mostly end their lives in a hospital, or perhaps a hospice. Very few die at home or in the presence of relatives, especially children. Many parents keep their children away from funerals. Our meat animals are killed far from us, their flesh delivered to us in tidy packages. Living in the city, I rarely even see dead animals on the road. In spite of seeing some extraordinary number of violent deaths depicted in the media, how many teenagers have ever been present at the death of anything?

This post is obviously light on statistics. I assert, without necessarily believing, that since we are talking about a cultural divide, that only perceptions matter here.

And the statistics aren’t the point. I do not think that the Senator’s behavior is so odd. Period.

Not that I find myself on the same side of many divides as the Senator. According to one anonymous Senator, “He really is doctrinaire and sanctimonious.”

A typical example from the article,

“How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when his moral code is flouted?” he asked that day. “To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes? How is it possible that there exists so little space in the public square for expressions of faith and the standards that follow from belief in a transcendent God?”

I don’t reject moral absolutes – another case where we occupy the same side of a cultural divide, but I do reject Santorum’s assumption that he alone has special insight into God’s moral code. There are a number of moral absolutes that Santorum offends, and more importantly, a number or moral absolutes that he defends, indefensably.

The problem with monotheists is that they make God in their own image. Santorum wants to bring his God into the public square as a trump card. Santorum knows God’s moral code, you do not. You cannot criticise his position; it is God’s position.

A belief in a transcendent God does not lead directly to the platform of the Republican party.

1 Comment(s)

  1. JoyceS | Nov 1, 2005 | Reply

    I just heard a talk show host make (derogatory) reference to this Santorum family story and I couldn’t quite remember the details, so I Googled it and your post was in the results. Now I remember the story and that I was disturbed by the progressive community’s response to it, I couldn’t believe otherwise compassionate, open-minded people could be so callous. I love the points you’ve made here about it. I’ve never lost a child, but now I’m remembering how when I first heard about the Santorum family’s loss and the way they coped, I thought “I hope I would think of something like that in that terrible situation.” Thanks for a very thoughtful and poignant post.

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