Fresh Air - Transcript


SHOW: Fresh Air 12:00 AM EST NPR

August 30, 2004 Monday

HEADLINE: Rick Santorum discusses his views on abortion, stem cell research and shares a personal experience




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Republican Party's 2004 platform reaffirms the party's call for a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion. A little later we'll hear from Gloria Feldt, the head of Planned Parenthood of America. Her new book, "The War on Choice," begins with a quote from George W. Bush saying, "I will do everything in my power to restrict abortion."

First, we're going to hear from Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. He co-sponsored the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as the Laci Peterson bill, which makes harming a fetus a separate crime from harming the pregnant woman. He was the chief sponsor of the bill banning the controversial procedure known as partial-birth abortion. The law is being challenged in the courts. The latest decision was handed down last week by a federal judge in New York, who ruled that the ban was unconstitutional because it did not exempt cases where the procedure might be necessary to protect a woman's health. Senator Santorum also opposes all forms of embryonic stem cell research. The senator will speak Wednesday at the Republican convention.

Let's look at what the Republican platform has to say about abortion, and I quote: "We say that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." This would mean, I think, that an embryo would have the same constitutional rights as the pregnant woman carrying it. Is that right?

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): That's correct. It-I think it's a fundamental belief that life begins when it's-at conception because at that point, that egg and sperm that have combined are genetically human. They've all the chromosomes present of any other human being, and it's living, it's a human life and, as a result, should be protected by our Constitution and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which protects all life. And that's the kind of inclusive society that the president talks about in his-when he refers to the culture of life and has been the position of the party now for at least, I think, 24 years.

GROSS: So, Senator, what are the legal implications of this if the fetus-if a fertilized egg basically has equal constitutional rights as the woman carrying it. If, for instance, a woman's health is...

Sen. SANTORUM: Well, the fertilized...

GROSS: ...threatened by the pregnancy, what are the legal implications?

Sen. SANTORUM: Well, first off, the fertilized egg is a little girl or little boy. It's not a fertilized egg anymore. It's genetically not going to change at all. It is exactly as you or I or any other person in America or in the world was at that point in time in our lives and should be treated with respect as a result of it. What the implications are is that we have to honor and respect that, and we have to take responsibility for that child and protect that child until it is capable of providing for itself. And whether that means adoption or whether it means, you know, the mother...

GROSS: My question was if the health of the woman is threatened by the pregnancy and if the embryo has equal rights to the woman who's carrying it, what are the legal implications about the woman's health and her ability to abort?

Sen. SANTORUM: Yeah, if the case is a situation-and I think we've always made this clear. If the case was a situation between the life of the mother and the life of the child, then obviously that's a decision where-we run into all the time in the law, which is if it's two people's lives then obviously you aren't prosecuted for, in a sense, self-defense. If you're defending your own life, then you can take the life of another to defend your own life. That is clear in the law. But as you know, 99-plus percent of abortions...

GROSS: So it would be the equivalent of, like, shooting somebody in self-defense?

Sen. SANTORUM: It's exact-if that child is a threat to your life, then you have a right to defend yourself, in a sense, against this child. But as you know, over 99 percent of abortions in this country have nothing to do with the health or life of the mother. They have to do with the convenience or desire at that point in time in the woman's life not to have a child and the child is killed because of...

GROSS: But we're talking specifically about the provision in the Republican platform to give equal constitutional rights to the fetus, which is slightly different than just whether abortion is legal or not, so that's why I'm asking specifically about that.

Sen. SANTORUM: But-well, I understand that, but we have to look at the vast number of cases in which we're dealing with the issue of abortion, and in the vast number of cases-you know, over 99 percent-we're talking about abortion which is done simply because the mother no longer wants the child, not because there's any health consequences or life consequences to the mother. And that's why this is, you know-I can understand how people would obviously have exceptions for the life of the mother or maybe even some other rare circumstances like rape or incest or something like that, but the idea that this is an extreme idea that children and that all human life at all points in time in life should be protected and given constitutional protection and be treated in a dignified and respectable manner, I think, is something that every advanced society should have as its credo.

GROSS: But if a woman's life isn't threatened, but her health is likely to be compromised, should that be taken into account, or is that-does the...

Sen. SANTORUM: Again, the law speaks to that, and that is that you can use lethal force if lethal force is, in a sense, being used against you. In other words, if your life is threatened, then you can respond in kind. If something less than that, then you can respond in less than that. The interesting thing is, with modern medicine today, you know, there are all sorts of procedures available in which, you know, we can attempt to save the child. But there are times, as I think you've pointed to, where pregnancies, you know, may need to be terminated to protect the life of the mother. But with respect to health, there's usually situations, again, with modern medicine, that we can deal with those to minimize any kind of health effects to the mother.

GROSS: Let's get back to the Republican platform when it comes to abortion in addition to giving equal legal and constitutional protections to the fetus. The platform says, 'We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.' Does that mean that in the Republican platform it basically says there should be a litmus test to appoint only judges who oppose abortion?

Sen. SANTORUM: I think what we've seen in practice is that the president wants judges, and Republicans usually put forward judges, who see their role as not creating new law but in fact the role of interpreting the laws of this nation within the realm of what the Congress intended. And that's really what this point is about, which is, what happened in Roe vs. Wade and what's happened in some of the other subsequent cases after Roe was the judges took on the responsibility of the Legislature and created law where it did not exist. There was no right to an abortion in the law and there was no right to an abortion in the Constitution. And it's not the role of judges to create new rights when they believe they want it. That's what the constitutional amendment process is about, and that's what the Legislature and the Congress and the president and governors in the states are about. It's about the people making these decisions as to what rights people should have as opposed to a few unelected judges sitting on high, dictating to us how we're going to live our lives and run our country.

And so it is really that dichotomy between an activist judge who sees their role as to be sort of the warrior putting forth their agenda and imposing on the public, and, by the way, having no check or balance, because once the judge says this is the law, it's very, very hard for a Congress or a president to overturn it, short of this rather cumbersome procedure called a constitutional amendment, which takes two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states. Yet to create a new constitutional right, the way we've seen it now in practice over the last 40 years, takes the stroke of a pen and four signatures assigned to it. Five justices of the Supreme Court can do what it takes three-quarters of the states and two-thirds of the Congress to accomplish. That's not the balance that our Founding Fathers intended, and it's this corruption of judicial power that this is aimed at.

GROSS: You say that you oppose judges who are activist with their own agenda, but could you argue that the judges the Republican platform calls for appointing are activist judges with an agenda? Their agenda is to overturn abortion and make it illegal.

Sen. SANTORUM: No, their agenda is to return to the traditional role of what judges are supposed to do in the checks and balance of powers that was established in the Constitution, which is the judges are there to interpret the law within the realm of congressional intent, not to be able to on their own create new constitutional rights without the process that the founders put forth, which is a constitutional amendment process. I understand it's easier; I understand it's quicker. I understand it's less mess and trouble. But it's not the way we should be changing our Constitution. So, no. We're not saying that judges should come forward and say that all abortions are banned. What we should say is that this is a decision left up to the people of the United States to make in their state capitals and in the nation's capital. That's what the Republican platform calls for, that's what Republicans generally have been calling for ever since 1972 and '73, and that is to let the people speak on these very important moral issues instead of a select group of judges proclaiming from on high how Americans shall live.

GROSS: Now we've been talking about the Republican Party platform planks on abortion. There hasn't been a lot of public discussion about abortion during this election period. Why is that? How important do you think the Republican platform on abortion is, and how much do you think we should be discussing it?

Sen. SANTORUM: Well, I think it's probably as important as the Democratic plank on abortion, which is, you know, abortion on demand, which is-if you look at where the public is on the issue of abortion, more of the public, you know, hold the position that the Republican platform has than hold the position the Democratic platform has. The Democratic platform has abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy. That is a position held by less than 20 percent of the people in America, whereas the Republican position is held by, you know, upwards of close to 30 percent of the people in America, and if you take the cases of rape and incest, which are, you know, 10ths of a percent of the abortions that we have to deal with in America, you know, the number gets, you know, up into the 40 percent. So, you know, the idea that somehow or another the Republican platform position is out of the mainstream I think is simply not the case and, in fact, I think is a very important part of the base of the Republican Party, just as a very important part of the pro-choice element is of the Democratic Party.

GROSS: My guest is Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a staunch opponent of abortion.

President Bush supports only very limited embryonic stem cell research. You oppose embryonic stem cell research completely. Now these are stem cells from an embryo about a week after fertilization when the embryo consists of a few hundred cells. And the embryos in question-This is my understanding: The embryos in question for stem cell research now basically come from fertility clinics that have these embryos that are no longer under consideration for implantation in a woman's womb, which means that they can't grow into a baby 'cause they're just in a test tube and they're not in a womb, and they would end up being discarded. Why not use them for medical research?

Sen. SANTORUM: It's a utilitarian argument, and the problem is that what we're talking about here is not stem cell research. What we're talking about here is federal funding of stem cell research. There's no ban.

GROSS: Understood. Right.

Sen. SANTORUM: The president hasn't banned stem cell research, not-what he has said is that the federal government shall not participate in the destruction of human life by funding that destruction and that with respect to the existing lines of embryonic stem cells that are out there, he said that the federal government can fund those lines, but we are not going to participate in any way in the destruction of human life. It's somewhat similar to abortion, which is abortions are legal in this country, but the federal government will not use federal dollars to fund abortions. It's a consistent argument, one that has been fairly well accepted by the American public.

So the idea that, you know, we need to go down this path is another fundamental question, and it's a question that really begs a lot more study, which is, you know, what benefits have we seen or can we anticipate from embryonic stem cell research? Number one, there's no therapeutic value at all at this point to embryonic stem cell research. There is substantial-a number of therapeutic values to adult stem cell research, using cord blood and other adult stem cells from human beings. We should actively pursue that adult stem cell research.

With respect to the use of embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, again, I just come back to the fact that the federal government should not be participating in funding the destruction of any human life. Those embryos can and hopefully will be given up for adoption. There's lots of people in America who simply cannot even go to an in vitro clinic and have a fertilized egg, and so it's an opportunity for adoption of those embryos. There's all sorts of options available other than experimentation, killing these children, these little human beings for the purpose of research. I just don't think that's what federal government should be doing.

GROSS: These are embryos that are never going to become children because...

Sen. SANTORUM: We would hope that they'd be adopted.

GROSS: ...they're at fertility clinics and they're-let me ask you. Do you oppose fertility clinics that do in vitro fertilization? Because at these clinics there are inevitably embryos that are discarded. So...

Sen. SANTORUM: Yeah, I think that a lot of them...

GROSS: ...would you like to see them close down or to regulate their practices in a way that they're not being regulated now?

Sen. SANTORUM: I think that a lot of in vitro clinics end up producing a lot more fertilized eggs than are needed to deal with the situation at hand. And I think, you know, that's part of their process, and I think that's a very casual and cavalier way to treat human life.

GROSS: So would you like to see the regulation of the number of fertilized eggs that fertilization...

Sen. SANTORUM: I don't think we should be treating...

GROSS: ...clinics can use?

Sen. SANTORUM: Yeah, I think that's a good question. I don't think we should be creating human life in a cavalier fashion in the sense that we're creating a lot more human lives than whatever would be needed for implantation. And so I understand the expense associated with it, but we are talking about human life here, and I think, you know, regulation as to the number of these is something that state legislatures have looked into, and I know the Congress has looked into this.

GROSS: Are you opposed to in vitro fertilization if it does end up with embryos that will not be implanted in a woman's womb and will not become a child?


GROSS: So you're opposed to that form of in vitro fertilization.

Sen. SANTORUM: Yeah. I don't think that's a position that is what the...

GROSS: Your party doesn't say that, but you believe that.

Sen. SANTORUM: That party doesn't get in to that, but I do believe...

GROSS: Yeah.

Sen. SANTORUM: Look, I mean, I-a full disclosure here. I'm a Roman Catholic. I very strongly believe that life begins at conception and that we should not be destroying life at any stage of life, and I feel very strongly about that. I think a society that is a welcoming society, that is a society that respects all human life is a society in which all people will be treated more justly and more fairly.

GROSS: Senator, I know you have to leave, so I will ask you quickly to reflect on a personal experience you've had that reflects on your opinion in the debate about abortion. Your wife was 20 weeks pregnant when she found out that the baby she was carrying had a severe medical problem. There was an obstruction in the urinary tract, and the doctors told her that the child basically would not survive outside of her womb. What were the-and she had a severe infection that developed as well. What were the options that she had at that point? What did you have to decide?

Sen. SANTORUM: Well, there was that physical abnormality in our son, and the options available were to continue with the pregnancy, which there was a small chance that the obstruction could clear but very, very small chance, almost zero; and two, we could intervene and try to do some procedure to relieve that obstruction and provide some hope for the baby to survive; or three, obviously you could terminate the pregnancy; that's an option that was made available. Obviously, we would not consider the last option, and we did not consider the first option because we believed that gave no hope for our son.

And so we did the thing that I think, you know, if this child was not in the womb but was three years old, I think most would say, well, would you kill your child? Would you do nothing to try to save your child? Or would you do the medical procedure that gave the best chance to survive? And so we acted the way we thought prudent parents should act, and we had a medical procedure done in Philadelphia that gave our son a chance.

Like many medical procedures, there's a risk of infection, and when the procedure was done-obviously you open up the womb to outside instruments and other things when you have a surgery done. And unfortunately, as a result of that, several days after the surgery she-my wife had an infection in the uterus which caused her to go into labor. And the baby was delivered, and Gabriel was 21-plus weeks old and he was born alive. And he lived for two hours, and he was not old enough or well-developed enough to have survived beyond that. And so we gave comfort care to him for those two hours in which he lived.

And it, you know, affected me profoundly because it realized to me that all life is significant and precious no matter how brief or how disabled or how short. And his life has affected mine in ways-and other people's lives-Karen wrote a book about it, there have been articles written about it-and the hundreds if not thousands of people who have been touched by his life shows me that, you know, there's a plan for all of us. We don't know what it is and we don't know how long we're going to be here, but we have to respect the fact that all of us have the ability to make a contribution to the betterment of all, even though we may not be here long or may not be very healthy in the process.

GROSS: After he died, you brought him home to show your children. Why did you want to do that?

Sen. SANTORUM: We brought him home to bury him. You know, we thought it was appropriate. He was a member of our family, and instead of taking him to a funeral home for a viewing, if you will, we brought him home for a Mass at the house and then, with the funeral director, brought him over to the cemetery where he was buried. So, yeah, we had-in a sense, you could call it a viewing. Instead of having the viewing at the funeral home, which we thought was rather impersonal, given the circumstances, this was something that we wanted to just share with our family and for our children to see that they had a little brother and that their little brother lived and, you know, was a part of this family, and they got a chance to see this little gift and remember him for the rest of their lives.

GROSS: Senator Santorum, thank you very much.

Sen. SANTORUM: Yes. You're welcome.

GROSS: Senator Rick Santorum will speak Wednesday at the Republican convention. He sponsored the partial-birth abortion ban.

Coming up, defending the right to abortion.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.