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Riding the Rail with Rick

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In 2007, I had an interesting conversation about contraception with now-Presidential contender Rick Santorum. I was on my way down to D.C. for the launch of Birth Control Watch, a blog that monitored anti-birth control campaigns. Just ahead in the crowd piling onto the track was Senator Santorum, who as I wrote then, was "younger-looking and shorter than I imagined him. It may not be him, I thought, but then spotted RJS embroidered on his canvas briefcase. He looked comfortable in business suit and briefcase, which struck me as incongruous--I would've pegged him as a backpack-on-the-front-when-in-the-city kind of guy. (You know, to guard against robberies.)" It was for me like spotting a celebrity. I had recently published my book, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America which was subtitled; Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex... And here was a main architect of the movement to legally keep birth control out of the hands of Americans. I waited till we were on the train, which left him no means of escape.

It was during this conversation I discovered one good thing about Rick Santorum: he (unlike, say, Mitt Romney) has always been open about, and held steadfast to, his beliefs, no matter how extreme and unpopular. Romney of course is the chameleon candidate. As Governor of Massachussetts, Mitt Romney went to bat for access to emergency contraception (which he now inaccurately claims is an abortifacient) and pledged to increase state funding for contraception (though now he promises to end all federal funding.) It's a difficult dance and no doubt part of what makes him such an uncomfortable presence.
Rick, however, struck me as comfortable, relaxed, in part perhaps, because has always been true to his anti-family planning ambitions. He doesn't just want to make contraception hard to come by, he wants most contraceptive methods banned. The remarkable - and commendable - thing is that Santorum is honest about his plans to keep almost all contraception out of the hands of American women. Just ask him.

Here's my account of that meeting that I published soon after on birthcontrolwatch.org:

"Once everyone settled into the comfy Metroliner seats and we were well on the way, I decided I had to find him. How could I pass up an opportunity like this? He is the staunchest of staunch fundamentalist anti-choice movers. He's exactly the kind of blinkered mind that's choked progress on the birth control issue.

And so I grabbed a copy of my book, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, and began making my way down the aisle. He was in the next car and I gingerly walked up to him and extended my hand. "Hello Senator. My name is Cristina Page and I just wanted to say hello and give you my book because we have an interest in common." I paused; he smiled. "Although we come to it from different places." Still, he smiled.

I handed him my book, which he's in, on page 164. He read the title and seemed to brace himself. I kneeled before him - a little dramatic, maybe, but on Amtrak it's actually the only option besides literally talking down to him and said, "Before you draw any conclusions, I want you to know that I make a lot of common ground arguments in here. In fact, the book was really written for 'pro-life' people." Which is true.

"Well, what are some of your arguments," he asked, offering me the perfect opening. It was a delicious moment, one I'd long imagined - face to face with an opponent of cartoonish proportions. Of course, it's easier to be angry (and at the same time articulate) in your imagination. In person, I found Santorum an almost sympathetic presence; he wanted to listen.
And so I launched into my best point. "I argue that the pro-choice movement is doing a better job at what the American people view as pro-life goals than the pro-life movement is." Was he interested? Who cares. No stopping me now. "Just one example: the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world are the ones that have adopted the strongest pro-choice policies, and the countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are the ones that have adopted the strongest pro-life policies. If pro-life Americans knew this I think they'd be really concerned."

Santorum seemed to actually consider this. And so I kept going. Could he be reasoned with? Had he just not been presented with the data?

"I don't need to tell you," I said, "that most pro-life groups classify many forms of contraception as "abortion" (as he did on the Senate floor) -- "even though there's no scientific evidence that contraception can work the way they suggest it does. There's no evidence that a fertilized egg can be prevented from implanting in the womb--in fact, all studies suggest it only works to prevent an egg from releasing or the sperm from reaching the egg--and that there's no action after conception. This should be a huge relief to pro-life groups especially considering contraception is the only proven way to prevent abortion." All this, I said while on my knees.

At which point I paused. One always imagines that having the truth on your side helps; that maybe just maybe when presented with the facts sensible people will come to their senses.
"Well, you know it's not all about preventing abortion," he told me. And, after a little throat clearing, continued, "It's about sex too."

It wasn't that deflating; I knew common ground right there on the Amtrak wasn't going to happen. In fact, his casual mention of this factoid brought me back to the great divide that really separates the sides.

For so long, people have thought the heart of the conflict is differences over abortion. Not so. In a way, I was glad to hear Santorum acknowledge it. He confirmed the main point of my book, and he, by any measure, is an unimpeachable source. For the anti-choice side, abortion is only secondary. They're fighting a culture war. And their side, amazingly, simply doesn't want people to have sex, except in the God-mandated cause of procreation.

I couldn't resist. After all, I think he's wrong on his view of the culture war, too. "I don't want to take up too much of your time, but just on that point--on the values issue--I spend a lot of time on this in my book and what I try to show is that all the values that the Christian right holds most dear; stronger families, more involved fathers, children with greater supports--have all come about as a result of family planning. If you ever have the time I'd love for you to read my book, and I know this is unlikely, but I put my card in the book if you wanted to correspond about it."

"Well," he said, "I don't really work on the issue too much these days."
"That's a relief." I said. It just slipped out.
Then, he added (discouragingly), "I plan to in the future." (He's got about ten different projects currently.)
Oh well. I headed off leaving him with, I suspect, some reading not to do. "