The Washington Post

Will Rick Santorum's social policies hurt him with women?

Feb 16, 2012

With Rick Santorum's recent statement about how women should be kept out of combat because of "emotions," and the resurfacing of the video of him in 2006 explaining why birth control is "harmful to women," it's not a stretch to ask whether or not Santorum will have problems with women voters in his campaign for the GOP presidential bid.

But add to that Obama's recent decision on contraception coverage and political commentators discussing the "war on birth control", and one must wonder just how much politics is currently affecting women's health issues.

Chat with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield about whether or not Rick Santorum's social policies will affect his relationship with women voters, as well as how much politicians should be able to control women's heath issues, if social policies are hurting women's health, and more.

Submit your questions, opinions and comments now.

Buckle up because this could be a very bumpy ride!  From both the left and the right, politicians seem pretty sure that they know what's best when it comes to birth control, abortion, and women's health in general.  The "funny" thing is that it seems more like both sides are more interested in using those issues to rally their respective bases than they are to creating sane policy which serves the largest number of people. 


The Obama administration seems tone-deaf, at best, to the needs of Catholics and many others who practice a more conservtive brand of faith, deciding for them what fits within their tradtion and what does not.  Rick Santorum on the other hand, seems to find it difficult to let women decide for themselves what constitutes good health, or even what it means to be a woman!


What say you?  Join in!

Women do seem to be under attack. If the contraception question was about men, it wouldn't even be a question. Under the guise of caring about women, Santorum, the Church, and all the other cronies would like to see us go back in time. Whatever they feel personally, it should not affect public policy. Women's health should be left up to women.

Suspiscion and cyncism are not replacements for serious arguments.  And your claim that personal feelings should not effect public policy is odd at best.  Do you think that President Obama's personal feelings should effect policy by dictating that contraception and abortion-inducing mmedications are rights to which all women are entitled?


Don't get me wrong, I think that essentialist claims about women's emotions and health, at least the way they have been used by Mr. Santorum, are absurd and even a little offensive.  I simply think that if we really want things left to women, then govenrment, on both sides of the issue, should not be involved.  But because that would leave poor women especially, in a very vulnerable place, that doesn't exactly work either.


Addressing these issues well and fairly will require more patience and greater appreciation of the partial truths on all sides, than anyone currently seeking the presidency seems to understand.  THAT'S what worries me.

A vote for Rick Santorum is a vote back in time. After so many strong women leaders, and the advances of today, how does he get off making these comments? One can only hope that women will take notice.

You may be correct about it being a "vote back in time".  That may be the appeal for many people, and failing to acknowledge that, or the needs which may have been better met "back then", is a mistake -- both strategically and factually.


Not everything in the past was worse, not even for women.  Would I advocate for a total return?  NO!  But nor would I commit the arrogant act of assuming that we have paid no price for some of the advances that have been won.  And the fact is, that millions of people, including millions of women, feel that way too -- it's the foundation of social conservative's appeal.


Women, and men too, should take notice.  We should notice that nothing comes free in this world, that we pay for every move forward in one area with new challenges and questions in the same or related areas.  Women are, as they should be, more in control of their bodies and their sexuality.  They are also suffering from a range of unprcdented health challenges never seen until recently,  using abortion in ways and numbers that are not always good for their health (it IS a surgical procedure), etc.


We should not go back, but neither should we simply pat ourselves on the back for all the great things which progress has brought.  I believe that whoever captures both sides of the issue that way, will capture the hearts and minds of a huge number of Americans.

Why is it a problem for Rick Santorum to mention that birth control is harmful for women when you hear it from your own Dr's and on Dr Oz show, and all over tv? I think he is only stating the truth and women should not have a problem with it, I know I don't and I am a woman.

It's not a problem per se.  As a candidate he can and should tell the public what he beleives.  But to assume that he is presenting the whole story when he suggests that birth control is inherently dangerous for women, is simply false and even foolish, and by doing so, he sends a strong message about his command and use of information.


I would love to hear froma doctor who believes that birth control, however used and whatever method is used, is inherently dangerous.  That's just nuts.  It's medicine, and like all medicine, it can be used and it can be abused, but the fear of it's abuse should never make it unavailable to those who use it responsibly, even if others don't agree with them for religious or philosohpical reasons.

Will women let their emotions rule and vote for the best looking candidate in the Presidential race? (sarcasm intended)

Sarcasm appreciated, but it's not so simple.  In fact, looks play a real and proven role in who we elect.  Americans like our president's tall, fit, and yes, good looking.  While there is no single standard, that is what we know about the american voting public -- both male and female.

Asking if Santorum's social policies hurt him with women is like asking if Lester Maddox's resistance to equal public accomodations hurt him with African American voters, but since you are not a woman, a political scientist, or a pollester, I'm not sure how you would know, so I would like to ask your views on the claim that restricting non-religious enterprises's ability to discriminate is a violation of religious liberty.

Forgive me, but what is racist, genderist, snarkiness from the left, as yours seems to be, any more acceptable than it is from the right?  Not to mention that your grasp of history is less than strong.  While Maddox's policies were not thought by African American's to offer them a better path forward, whether we like it our notm millions  of American women DO think that about Santorum.  You could, and may well, dismiss those people as fools, but that is how elections are lost.


As to restricting non-relgious enterprises, you are almost certainly correct.  You also fail to recognize that what is defined as a religious enterprise is at the heart of this debate.  There is almost certainly room to work this out, but not if both sides keep insisting on the impossibility of doing so, and hauling out proof-texts to demonstrate why their side is right.  That's simply a recipe for legislative paralysis.  Is that what you really want?

If we allow Catholic employers to exclude birth control coverage from their employee's health plans, would we allow an employer who's a Jehovah's Witness to exclude coverage for surgery requiring blood transfusion? Would we allow a Christian Scientist employer to non-cover most traditional forms of medicine? The limits placed by spiritual concerns over health care have to be made by patients in consultation with their health providers and spiritual advisors; not through the economic power their employer exerts over them.

Please, no slippery slope arguments!  Both sides use them to create panic and fear -- to generate heat when what we need is light.  In fact, the cases you mention are not all synonomous, though space here does not allow a full discussion of that.


Where we certainly agree is that there are a whole host of issues in which covered employees make decisions with their physicians as to what is best for them, and the Catholic Church does NOT intervene, even though those decisions may go against Church teaching e.g. end of life issues.  All that points to the fact that this is a highly emotional issue which needs to be addressed far more slowly and cautiously than it has been.


As to the economic power of employers over the health coverage they provide -- that's a fact of life, and all that recent debate has changed is that the gov't would like to play a larger role.  Neither side is actually giving more power to individuals in a global sense.  That's what happens when others pay our bills -- they have power over us.


We're having some connectivity issues, so Brad is unable to respond to more questions at the moment. He will hopefully be back in just a minute though, so please stick around.


Brad is logging back in now, so stay tuned. Sorry for any inconvenience!

It's hard to believe that many women can be unaware of Mr. Santorum's social views, but outside DC maybe this is news. By and large I would think that even women who are generally conservative would find him over the top. Women who are interested in military careers were already unlikely to vote for a man who has made his name on social issues, even if they are conservative on financial issues.

Interesting observation.  I think that it's no accident that as the economy begins to show signs of improvement, there will be an attempt to re-ignite a whole bunch of social wedge issues that people simply forgot when the larger social issue of getting food on the table was ion question.

I believe Santorum has not turned off support from all women. While it has been stated that the vast majority of even Catholic women use birth control that he finds "harmful", I am sure there are a few voters in the minority who will still vote for him. Of course, as Adlai Stevenson observed before, that won't be enough for a majority.

There is no such thing as "all women", as your own observation shows you appreciate.  There will be those who support him because of his positions on these issues, and the best response i know is the remind those people that just as they rightly expect to be respected for their views, even by those who disagree with them, only those candidates who show the same respect for people with whom they disagree, are worthy of support.


It's like they said in colonial times:  either we hang together or we shall hang separately.

Although Santorum is Catholic, he agrees with fundamentalist on issues like this that greatly impact women. To your knowledge, does he endorse in the sexist idea of "male headship" of families, or implied that he endorses it? It's worth nothing that both Catholicism and fundamentalism limit women's role in those religions, with the former limiting ordination to men and the latter forbidding women from having leadership or teaching roles in churches. I admit I don't understand how someone could not view such teachings as downright mean to women.

I don't know of any particular statements which Mr. Santorum has made on "male headship", and I appreciate those teaching enough to know that they are only inherently mean to women when they proclaim themselves to be the only authentic way to be Christian. 


The issue here is not what people believe, but why they feel it is appropriate to go beyond fighting for their own right to hold such beliefs, and move right to imposing those beliefs on others.  Frankly, it's what neither side in the current debate really understands, and that mutual failure actually feeds the debate -- offering each side the evidence it seeks to go on trying to trounce on it's opposition.

How can Santorum, and for that matter the entire GOP's stance not create problems for them with women voters. Their opposition to birth control, which I believe something like 98% of all women use at one point in time or another, their attacks against planned parenthood, of which 97% is devoted towards non-abortion causes, their above and below the tables attacks against abortion, which is a painful and difficult decision for all women- how can it not hurt them. Then add on that there is no attempt to counter this with issues that have traditionally resonated with women such as education or personal safety and I think they are in serious trouble with women.

You think that because you assume that you know what women either do, or should, want.  the numbers however say that you are wrong.  In fact, a significant group of women voters view his comments as protecting the integrity of women and their sexuality, let alone the sacredness of the "un-born".  Again, not enough to get elected, but enough that simply treating those women as fools or idiots strikes me as boty arrogant and politcally foolish.

You shrugged off the previous chatter's question about Jehovah's Witnesses or Christian Scientists -- but are you aware that Republicans have indeed introduced legislation to allow private employers (not just religiously-affiliated ones like Catholic hospitals and universities, but any business of any kind) to refuse to provide health insurance that covers procedures to which they personally object? Though it's unlikely to pass, the question is not entirely hypothetical.

hardly shrugged it off, and certainly did not intend to give that impression.  It's just that it IS really complicated because all of these debates are proxy fights for a much larger question i.e. is health care a right or a benefit?  As long as it is linked to employment, there will be a strong case to be made for employers making whatever exceptions they want.  After all, they could simply offer no care at all.


We have built a dangerous house of cards with health care in this country -- refusing to admit that at the end of the day, some health care, especially in a country this affluent, should be a right.  Other levels of care however, are a benefit/priveledge, and will likely not be extended to all.


When we are ready for a policy which is neither fully equal, nor fully socialized, we will be on the right track. 

Off topic, but can you think of an issue or time - the immediate aftermath of 9/11 notwithstanding - that would not fall into this category during the past decade of U.S. politics? <sigh>

Thanks.  You are not off topic at all, and your reference to 9/11 is spot on.  When the stakes are really high, we tend to ignore these kinds of arguments, and if you watched how people responded to the mass shooting in which Rep. Giffords in AZ was hurt, you saw another such example when both gun-control and gun-rights folks came together.


The real lesson is to know that when we use and/or give in to slippery slope arguments, it is because either the issue is NOT high stakes, or we really don't feel personally effected by it.

Rabbi, as a fellow Jew and a Democrat I have to find myself somewhat appalled at what seems to be support for the GOP and Rick Santorum in particular by many in the Orthodox community. I realize that there is the perception that the GOP is better for Israel, but this seems narrow mindedly single issue to me. When you consider that the Republican Party has been adamant about promoting a Christian point of view in public schools and institutions, how can this not be sending up warning signals amongst the Orthodox in America?

Actually, all polling indicates that among Jewish supporters for GOP candidates, Romney is way ahead, Newt is second, and the other two are well back.  That said, i think that you are missing an important issue --  while Israel issues score higher among Orthodox voters than among non-Orthodix voters when it comes to picking a candidate, and especially a more right-wing version of what that means, that is not the whole picture.


What many Orthodix Jews value in GOP candidates is their typically greater sensitivity to the importance of relgious faith in shaping one's world view, and the fact that generally speaking, the more conservative one is theologically, the more conservative one is socially.  that norm is changing among young evangelical christians, but not so much among younger Orthodix voters.  Hope that helps you understand, if not agree.

Probably I should not judge a politician by his followers, but those people defending Mr. Santorum on the Post sites are not the least bit tolerant of the right of others to follow their conscience. Mr. Santorum has said that he would not impose his views re contraception on others (but abortion...?), yet it seems that he is quite willing to allow impediments to be created that will reduce access especially for the poor. I find that immoral; why should well-to-do women be allowed health care access and poor women denied it? Especially on such a vital issue as the ability to plan the family that you can afford.

You raise an important point -- tolerance.  More than a candidates position on any single issue, especially the social issues, their committment to protecting those with whom they disagree, is crucial.  I think that is why many people who have supported the President were so upset by how he unveiled his recent contraception plan.


Government does limit rights, that's the way it is, and there will be disagreement wbout whcih ones to limit and which not.  But you are right to be concerned about any candidate whose sense of rightness on very divisive issues is so absolute that he feels no obligation to protect those who do not share his views.  It sure seems that is where Santorum is on variety of issues.

2012's demonizing, demeaning, and disrespecting of women is a new low for the GOP. It's so offensive I can barely type straight. How do they ever expect us to vote Republican?!?!

Was there any chance of you voting Republican otherwise?  I ask only because if not, then the obserevation is not so helpful.  If you were, then it's a terribly important caution to any side that is willing to politicize issues over which the nation is deeply divided. 

I find it interesting that Romney is far outspending Santorum, to little avail. Romney has the finances and the organization, but he needs to give voters a reason to vote for him other than he is electable. Voters with a passion on conservative issues and leaning to one of the other candidates. What I find interesting is the negative advertising keeps knocking down each leading candidate other than Romney. It would be interesting if Romney is nominated primarly because he is the least objectionable candidate: that and he is the most "electable".

I think we are witnessing a struggle for the heart -- dare i say soul, of the Republican party.  The struggle is between ideological puritans and pragmatic politicians.  It's a bit ironic in that this was the issue Dem.s had for years.  Like them, Republicans must choose betwen being ideologically pure and actually winning and governing from the slightly right of center place where most Americans ahve been for a long time. 


I will close with one last observation:  Can anyone point to a time when ideological puritans served there country, or even their own community, very well for a sustained period of time?

As always, my only regret is how many great comments and questions could not be addressed in our alotted time frame!


Looking forward to chatting with you all next week.  Until then find me on facebook and follow me on twitter.



In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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