Karen Santorum's past: Let it go

Her pre-Rick relationship has nothing to do with his presidential campaign

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There are plenty of reasons to lodge charges of hypocrisy against Republican candidates for president. But in the case of Rick Santorum, his wife's past is not one of them.

Karen Santorum's former life recently made national news in the form of a story by Nancy Hass of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. While in her 20s, the former Karen Garver lived for six years with Tom Allen, one of the region's pioneering abortion doctors, 40 years her senior.

This has been well-known for decades to many people in Pittsburgh, including reporters. But it never circulated in print here, probably because it was regarded more as gossip than relevant information.

Still, it was only a matter of time until the scrutiny of a national campaign brought out this chapter of Mrs. Santorum's life in a more public way. Now that it's happened, it is no more germane to her husband's presidential aspirations than it ever was -- even though some opponents say her story undercuts his anti-abortion bona fides. That's a desperate and ridiculous charge, indicative of the tenuous hold on reality shared by some on the right-wing fringe whose votes Mr. Santorum is courting.

I don't believe there's anything hypocritical about Mrs. Santorum revising her abortion views. If anything, her story demonstrates the extent to which people can and do change over time. That doesn't make them insincere. It makes them human. But if her current view is legitimate, so was her former view. So this isn't as black and white as her husband insists.

There are many things to attack in Mr. Santorum's record, but those are not the things his fellow conservatives care about. He's threatened to bomb Iran, insisted there is no right to privacy in the Constitution and gamed the system in 2004 by billing the Penn Hills school district for $100,000 of his children's cyber school tuition even though the family actually lived in Virginia. That was a telling moment for a fiscal conservative who rails against government waste and fraud, but in a GOP primary battle over the title of Most Extreme, some would rather pile on his wife than his record.

Mrs. Santorum's story may not mean much, but it's still fascinating. Karen Garver, one of 12 children born into a staunch Catholic family, was for much of the 1980s the live-in partner of Tom Allen, a divorced obstetrician with six grown children of his own. She was 22 and a nursing student at Duquesne University. He was 63, a friend of her pediatrician father, and actually delivered her in 1960.

Long before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal, Dr. Allen had helped establish the "therapeutic abortion" clinic at Magee-Womens Hospital, where women could end their pregnancies under the care of a doctor instead of a hack.

"Karen was a lovely girl, very intelligent and sweet," Dr. Allen, now 92, told Newsweek. "Karen had no problems with what I did for a living. We never really discussed it."

Mary and Herbert Greenberg, longtime friends of Dr. Allen, said that Ms. Garver seemed perfectly comfortable with the subject of abortion, even offering to accompany Mrs. Greenberg to an abortion clinic when the latter wanted to end a pregnancy. "She told me it wasn't that bad, that I shouldn't be worried," said Mrs. Greenberg. "She was very supportive."

Ms. Garver's parents strongly disapproved of the relationship, but it persisted for six years. She worked as a neonatal nurse for a while, then went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1988 the couple broke up because Ms. Garver wanted children. She got a summer internship at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, where Mr. Santorum practiced law. They married in 1990 and began having children right away. He ran for Congress, and the rest of his zealous anti-abortion record is well- known.

Ceci Sommers, who knew Ms. Garver and Dr. Allen well, sent an email saying that she disagrees with Mr. Santorum's politics but has no doubts about Mrs. Santorum's sincerity.

"Her devotion to children and babies is genuine," Ms. Sommers wrote. "She came to me once and said she just couldn't take working in the neonatal nursery at Magee anymore as it just tore her up when they died."

Maybe Karen Santorum is a woman given to extremes, moving from a strict Catholic upbringing to cohabitation with a prominent liberal and then marriage to his ideological opposite. Then again, maybe she was simply living out a youthful rebellion before returning to the fold. That might even help her in some circles. Evangelicals especially love penitents who see the error of their ways.

Based on what we see of Mrs. Santorum now as a wife and mother who has home-schooled all seven of the couple's children, there is no reason to doubt her commitment to the strict Catholic code she and her husband espouse, objecting to birth control and abortion for any reason, including rape, incest and the health of the mother.

This last point, though, poses a problem. Mrs. Santorum had a difficult pregnancy in 1996 and the couple say they decided to induce premature labor to save Mrs. Santorum's life (some critics have likened this to a second-trimester abortion, but the Santorums deny any similarity). In any case, the baby died, and Mrs. Santorum wrote about it in her 1998 book "Letters to Gabriel."

That very personal decision was theirs to make. Other women deserve the same right without some politician looking up their hospital gowns. Two days after the 39th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, it's important to remember that. Karen Santorum is entitled to a change of heart on the issue, but millions of American women still want and need abortion rights as much as ever.


Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( skalson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1610).


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