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ALLOTT: Santorum Derangement Syndrome

Candidate gets Sarah Palin treatment for cherishing disabled children

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

There are, roughly speaking, three types of socially conservative politicians. There are those with conservative records on issues such as marriage and the sanctity of human life, and there are those who are also outspoken about the defense of these institutions and values.

Then there are those conservatives who also boldly live the values they espouse. Sarah Palin, as the mother of a child with Down syndrome, is one of them.

As a result, from the moment she burst onto the national political scene in August 2008 as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Mrs. Palin became the target of a special kind of hatred and ridicule from the left.

Some of the attacks had eugenic overtones. One left-wing journalist accused Mrs. Palin of wanting to "spread Down syndrome." A prominent obstetrician voiced his concern that her decision would persuade other mothers to choose life for their unborn babies with disabilities. Others interpreted her outspokenness on disability and the right to life as a ploy to win votes.

Like Mrs. Palin, former Sen. Rick Santorum is a conviction conservative who's unafraid to talk about his views on social issues, even, or perhaps especially, to hostile audiences. Also like Mrs. Palin, Mr. Santorum lives his values with an audacity that has attracted the left's unrelenting and, at times, deranged contempt.

Rick Santorum and his wife, Karen, are the parents of seven children, two of whom were born with severe disabilities. In 1996, Karen gave birth to Gabriel, a son the couple knew had a fatal genetic condition and would likely die shortly after birth.

Gabriel lived two hours outside the womb. The morning after his birth and death, the Santorums took Gabriel home so his siblings could meet him. "Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness," Karen, a former neonatal intensive care unit nurse, wrote in "Letters to Gabriel," a series of letters she wrote to Gabriel that were published as a book in 1998. "Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, 'This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.' "

I recently wrote a piece on the growing perinatal hospice movement, in which parents of babies likely to die during or soon after birth are given support and advice on how to cope with, care and grieve for their baby, as well as how to tell family members and others about the diagnosis.

The experience is obviously very difficult. But I learned that giving birth to a child with a fatal condition can also be profoundly rewarding - a way to validate, honor and celebrate a baby's life no matter how frail or how brief. As one mother of a child who died a few hours after birth put it, "[My daughter's] life and death showed me clearly that life can be lived fully and completely in the space of a few minutes."

In 2008, Karen gave birth to Bella, a daughter born with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder that causes severe intellectual and physical disabilities. According to the National Institutes of Health, half of babies born with Trisomy 18 die soon after birth, and less than 10 percent survive beyond a year. But those who survive infancy can live into adulthood. Now 3 1/2 years old, Bella often accompanies her family to campaign events.

As is this case with Mrs. Palin, the liberal media have plenty of reasons to loathe Mr. Santorum. But with his rise in the Republican presidential campaign, Mr. Santorum has become an appealing target for living his values.

A Washington Post blogger asked whether, with a daughter with Trisomy 18, Mr. Santorum should be campaigning at all. As one commenter put it, "Rick Santorum shows utter disregard for the comfort of his daughter and wife by dragging them through the 99 counties of Iowa." A writer in the Nation accused Santorum of "exploiting his youngest child's disability for political gain."

Fox News contributor Alan Colmes referred to Mr. Santorum's handling of Gabriel's death as an example of "some of the crazy things he's said and done." (Mr. Colmes later apologized.) Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson mocked Mr. Santorum, calling the Gabriel episode "very weird."

Previously, a New York Times Magazine writer suggested the decision to take Gabriel home shortly after his death could be seen as "discomforting, strange, even ghoulish." One commenter said the decision was "borderline child abuse."

Such reactions offer a glimpse of the widespread prejudice that exists against babies with severe disabilities. Abortion advocates often seem unbothered by parents who abort healthy babies; that parents would choose to give birth to severely disabled babies confounds them.

Most parents whose unborn babies receive severe or fatal diagnoses decide to abort. Cheri Shoonveld of the National Society of Genetic Counselors estimates that just 10 percent to 20 percent of women carry to term after learning of a terminal prenatal diagnosis.

At a time when a baby's genetic makeup can be discerned just weeks into pregnancy, disability is no longer seen as pitiful but instead as unnecessary and thus, by some, as immoral. As Robert Edwards, test-tube baby pioneer and 2010 Noble Prize winner, has said, "Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease."

Intrepid cultural warriors, Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Palin stand bravely against a culture that increasingly sees genetic perfection as an entitlement.

Politicians who believe all people have inherent value, regardless of their capabilities, are rare. Those who live those beliefs are even rarer. We should celebrate them when we find them.

Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and an associate producer with In Altum Productions.

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