Political Spouses

Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum’s Activist First Lady Karen

Eleanor Clift on Karen Santorum’s strength and strong faith in the Roman Catholic Church—and its dictates.

John Gress / Landov

The video clip is there for all to see, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in his trademark sweater vest talking candidly at a campaign event in Iowa about the death of an infant son, Gabriel, born prematurely in 1996.

Standing off to the side and captured by the camera is his wife, Karen, in tears as she listens to the recounting of that painful experience. Elizabeth, 20, the oldest of the seven living Santorum children, is seen comforting her mother, who looks tired and drawn after months of virtually living in Iowa to support her husband’s presidential ambitions.

This family tableau occurred the day of the Iowa caucuses, the results of which would catapult Karen Santorum into the spotlight along with her husband and the values they advocate. The stark emotions on display may have played a role in Santorum’s strong finish that evening, as evangelical Christian voters could see their beliefs embraced so openly in a campaign setting.

“It was a very difficult time in our lives,” Santorum explained, describing how he and Karen as parents did everything they could to save their baby’s life. Gabriel lived for two hours and died in his parents’ arms, and their decision to bring him home and introduce him to his siblings strikes some as loving and appropriate, and others as bizarre.

In America today, where death is a shunned and often distant occurrence, it’s startling to hear a politician talk about it so openly. “We all go through this, it’s part of life,” Santorum said, and in his wife’s case, he emphasized that death is not a stranger. Karen Santorum was a neonatal intensive care nurse for nine years, caring for the most fragile newborns. “She dealt with loss on a daily basis,” her husband said. “But one of the things she told all of us, it is so important for the family to recognize the life of that child, and for all the children to know they had a brother or a sister.”

Now that Santorum is vying to become the conservative alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney, everybody gets to opine about everything in his life. Alan Colmes, a progressive on the Fox News Channel, predicted the newly minted surge candidate would wilt under the barrage coming his way. “Once they get a hold of the crazy things he’s said and done—like taking his two-hour-old baby who died right after childbirth home and played with it for a couple of hours so his other children would know that the child was real,” Colmes said—a remark he later apologized for after National Review editor Rich Lowry told him it was a cheap shot.

How the Santorums handled the death of their baby is intertwined with the couple’s views on abortion, and their decision to risk intrauterine surgery to correct a fatal defect in the womb rather than end the pregnancy. When the surgery led to an infection that threatened Karen’s life, she resisted efforts to deliver the baby prematurely until doctors told her husband the baby would not live in any event, and he would lose his wife as well if the pregnancy continued. Only then, Santorum would later say, did it become “a pretty easy call” to induce labor and allow the pregnancy to lapse.

Karen Garver Santorum is one of 12 children, and having a large family of her own is entirely natural to her, reflecting her strong faith in the Roman Catholic Church and its dictates. She is also an anti-abortion activist, and in 1992 helped launch the Susan B. Anthony List, which is dedicated to electing pro-life women to public office. “Karen was an accomplished attorney before she met Rick and a sharp person herself who understood the intellectual underpinning of what we were and are trying to do,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president. “She got it—that a pro-life feminist is not an oxymoron.”

The two women are friends and allies, and Dannenfelser marvels at what she calls Karen Santorum’s “composure in the storm,” an inner strength she believes uniquely situates the candidate’s wife for what lies ahead in the political minefields. She recalls hosting an event on the publication of Santorum’s book, Letters to Gabriel, recounting this most intimate journey of the baby she carried and then lost. Her children were milling around and acting up as children will, yet she kept her focus as she talked. Dannenfelser is a huge fan, saying it is one thing to be a pro-life activist but quite another to live those values, as Santorum did with Gabriel and continues to do with her youngest child, Bella, now 3, who was born with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder associated with a severely shortened life.

“The effect she has is to soften the heart for the vulnerable,” says Dannenfelser. “She is a truly tender warrior.” Asked if the Susan B. Anthony List shies away at all from the way the Santorums handled the mourning and burial of their son, she says, “definitely not,” likening it to “a viewing.” The three older children at the time were waiting for this baby, she explains, there needed to be a quick resolution, “and they did it in a way that was beautiful.”