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opinion | scot lehigh

Santorum’s contraception deception

ON THE campaign trail, Republican Rick Santorum portrays himself as an honest, straightforward candidate. But in courting conservative religious voters as a like-minded person of faith while dismissing media questions about his faith-based beliefs as irrelevant or unfair, he’s trying to have things both ways.

A telling example of that political disingenuousness came on Monday, when the former Pennsylvania senator got annoyed with Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.’’

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Santorum grew animated after Scarborough, himself a conservative former GOP House member, asked him about an October interview with the religious blog Caffeinated Thoughts. In it, Santorum declared that contraception was “not OK’’ and vowed that as president, he’d make that case publicly.

“This is you guys playing sort of ‘gotcha’ politics,’’ Santorum replied. “Look, I was talking about my own personal faith, and what I was saying is that the issue of out-of-wedlock births and what’s going on in the destruction of the American family is something that I will talk about and I have talked about in this campaign.’’

Adding that “I wasn’t talking about access to contraception,’’ Santorum asserted that “the only reason I’ve been talking about this issue is . . . in the context of government forcing people of faith to do things that are against [their] religious beliefs.’’ That is, provide insurance coverage for contraception.

But despite his put-upon tone, Santorum’s answer was highly misleading. In the interview with Caffeinated Thoughts, Santorum was asked specifically what could be done to advance a pro-life agenda.

“Can we pass bills? Yeah. I’ll work on trying to pass bills,’’ he said. “I’ll work on trying to make the laws of this country more friendly, like I’ll repeal . . . Obamacare and get rid of any kind of idea that you have to have abortion coverage or contraceptive coverage.’’ He did not talk about limiting such a contraception-coverage exemption to religious or religiously affiliated organizations.

It strains credulity to think he’d forgo opportunities to make legal and policy changes that advanced his point of view.

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Santorum then promised that, as president, he’d decry contraception. “One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country,’’ he said. Noting that many Christians think contraception is okay, Santorum continued: “It is not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to . . . how things are supposed to be.’’ Santorum’s view, obviously formed by his conservative religious beliefs, is that sexual relations “are supposed to be within marriage’’ and “for purposes that are yes, conjugal, but also unitive, also procreative.’’ In other words, artificial birth control shouldn’t be used.

After contending that “these are important public policy issues’’ with “profound impact on the health of our society,’’ Santorum said a president needs “to have the courage to talk about the moral aspects of it.’’

So Santorum was dissembling when he portrayed his comments to the blog as little more than a discussion of his personal religious views and an attempt to highlight the problem of out-of-wedlock births, just as he was shading the truth when he said he has only talked about contraception in the context of an insurance mandate. It’s clear that in his view, the availability of contraception has undermined the family and promoted out-of-wedlock births by increasing individual sexual freedom.

Now, one has to travel a highly circuitous causal path to conclude that the greater availability of birth control has led to more births. But dubious reasoning aside, here’s the issue for voters: Santorum has made it apparent he thinks contraception is wrong. He believes it has led to large societal problems. He’s said he’ll use the presidency to try to change American attitudes. Given all that, it strains credulity to think he’d forgo opportunities to make legal and policy changes that advanced his point of view.

As Santorum has demonstrated during this campaign, he’s a skilled politician. Part of that skill, unfortunately, is talking out of both sides of his mouth. Another part is using indignation to sidestep questions.

But Scarborough was right to query Santorum about contraception. And though Santorum’s answer was misleading, his effort to deflect the question tells voters something they need to know.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.
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