“The personal is political” is an old feminist slogan, but it has never been more intensely true than it is now on the pro-life American right, whose icons draw their status in part from the fact that they’ve chosen to have and raise disabled children.
Trig Palin and Bella Santorum, both born with genetic disorders that routinely lead to abortions, have become central to their parents’ political identities. Critics quietly deride the children’s high profiles as a matter of political opportunism; but to their parents’ supporters, it’s the ultimate mark of authenticity, an earned source of popularity.
“The reason Santorum and Palin resonate is because their political life is an extension of who they are,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and who also has a daughter with cognitive disabilities.
The children “are symbols of the pro-life movement,” said the president of Personhood USA, Keith Mason. “They’re what it looks like when you care for the dignity of all humans.”
Santorum has made Bella’s condition – Trisomy 18, a disorder with a more severe prognosis than Down’s Syndrome – a central part of his political career, and he discussed his daughter in a campaign ad released in October, in which he talked about his own decision to run for president.
“Karen and I have struggled in trying to discern whether God could possibly want us to do that, particularly in light of the fact that our youngest daughter is a very special girl who needs a lot of care,” Santorum says, as the camera cuts to photos of his baby daughter lying in a hospital bed.
The former Pennsylvania senator is still in the race in spite of the fact that his daughter’s condition deteriorated last weekend, putting her in the hospital and him off the campaign trail for a few days. Returning to the trail after her condition stabilized, he explained to reporters that it was another tough choice but that he had to continue to run to “make sure that we have a country where little Bella is respected and loved.”
Bella, meanwhile, was still recovering, unaware of her status as the driving force behind her father’s presidential run.
But if the celebration of disabled children has become a powerful new symbol for the pro-life movement, it provokes a very different reaction on the pro-choice left. There, the public elevation of disabled children is an implicit judgment.
“It borders on their suggesting that those women who might choose to terminate their pregnancy given a situation like that, somehow those women would have made a less moral choice,” said Kate Michelman, the former president of the abortion rights group now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. “It somehow suggests that those women who would make that decision don’t care about people with disabilities.”
“I do get uncomfortable when I see the Sarah Palins of the world or the Rick Santorums of the world use their children who have disabilities for political ends,” she said.
This argument played out most visibly, and most strangely, when the writer Andrew Sullivan voiced doubts in 2008 Trig is in fact Sarah Palin’s son. The train of thought he seemed to be following was that Palin had somehow procured a disabled child for purely symbolic, political reasons.
Palin had “deliberately forced an infant with special needs into the bewildering public space” and “used him as the central prop in the construction of a political identity.”
The speculation was enough to get him briefly silenced at The Atlantic and pushed somewhat outside the political mainstream; it also tapped into a real sense among Palin’s enemies of the power of the new images of disabled children.
Palin and Santorum have also faced another line of criticism: That they don’t support government spending on disabled children.
“As an advocate for civil rights for people with disabilities, my deep burning question is not [Santorum’s] relationship to his child, my deep question is what is he going to do,” said Lara Schwarz, an executive for the American Association of People With Disabilities .
“I do absolutely think it’s fair game when someone has expressed a personal commitment to someone with a disability, for them to say what that means for them as a matter of policy,” Schwarz said of Santorum.
Conservatives argue that life comes well before questions of federal spending, though Santorum has tended toward backing a broader government role than some Republicans. Palin’s own involvement with disability advocacy, meanwhile, has been sporadic, at its highest profile in a public condemnation of Rahm Emanuel for his use of the word “retarded.”
The larger impact, though, may be on the pro-life movement, a notable exception to a general sense that social issues should wait for less trying times. During the George W. Bush Administration, even Republicans viewed the movement as a spent, fading force; Bush associated himself with the anti-abortion movement but did little to further its agenda.
The high-profile children, though, have given the movement new energy, and to the anti-abortion movement, their parents’ staying power represents a new-hope. Pro-lifers stymied by years of Republican politicians not taking their cause seriously enough for their satisfaction now have two who put it at the forefront not only of their politics, but of their families.
There is nobody more powerless than a badly disabled baby, but the children have become, Dannenfelser said, the improbable sites of political strength.
“The more people see the power children with disabilities have, the more people see the power
of the movement,” she said.