Complete Election Coverage

01.03.12

Rick Santorum’s Dead-Baby Ritual

Religious families like the Santorums may seem obsessed with their dead infants, but their strange reactions may not be so unusual—especially to parents who are coping with loss of a child.

Fox News contributor Alan Colmes brought Rick Santorum and his wife to tears Monday when he criticized their unusual reaction to the death of their infant son, Gabriel, in 1996. The Santorums brought the baby home with them after he lived only a couple of hours.

In discussing the events, Colmes said that they "played with it for a couple of hours so his other children would know that the child was real." Santorum and his wife both broke down sobbing when asked to respond, and, amid a storm of conservative outrage, Colmes called them to apologize for his “hurtful comment.”

Even if you think Colmes crossed the line, you have to admit the Santorums taking their dead child home to be “introduced” to their three living children is pretty bizarre. (The story of the incident seems to have originated in the candidate's wife Karen’s book, Letters to Gabriel.)

Considering Santorum’s hardline Catholic views on abortion (he favors the criminalization of all abortion and supports states’ rights to ban contraception), it’s tempting to read the anecdote through the lens of the pro-life movement’s morbid fetishization of the fetus, from plastic embryos to grisly posters and billboards designed to show that fetuses are human beings.

It’s hard not to compare it to the Duggar family, of the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, who showed images of their miscarried 20th child on a large screen at the baby’s funeral.

There’s no denying that conservative Christian families with views similar to the Santorums or the Duggars can have unusual relationships with children that have died. These rituals that strike others as odd might involve referring to their deceased children as if they were living members of the family, naming them, and writing letters or even books to them. It goes without saying that these reactions are connected to the belief that bearing children is an indication of God’s blessing and favor.

It’s tempting to read the anecdote through the lens of the pro-life movement’s morbid fetishization of the fetus.

But it’s hard to say if this behavior, however strange it seems, is unique to pro-life Christians. By now we all know the story of Barbara Bush showing a young George W. a miscarried fetus she had brought home from the hospital in a jar. Among tales of parental grief, that’s a relatively mild reaction to what some psychologists describe as the most intense emotion a human being can feel. The simplest explanation seems to be that the trauma of losing a child can cause people to do some very strange things, and it’s not surprising to see a family that deeply spiritualizes the birth of children imbue a loss with a similar degree of intense religious meaning.