Bella Santorum

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Moral problems that do not fit tidily into preconceived ideas are fascinating and a good way to occupy oneself in the years of Mild Cognitive Impairment. Moral problems, when sufficiently complex, require complicated sentences, and I enjoy complicated sentences. So: I have been thinking recently about Bella Santorum.

Bella Santorum is the eighth child (one prior child died when just two hours old) of presidential candidate and Internet punch line Rick Santorum and his wife Karen Garver Santorum. Rick Santorum, though charming and Midwestern on the campaign trail, though given to a humbling fashion tendency—the sweater vest—that has gotten most men a beat down in the middle school years, is among the more doctrinaire and dangerous politicians of the moment, right up there with Sam Brownback or Jon Kyl or Mitch McConnell. He never met a social issue that didn’t require from him a knee-jerk one liner that would turn heads with its oversimplification and vacuity. He never met an earmark he wouldn’t try to bring home to Pittsburgh. Though he is not as preening and narcissistic as Newt Gingrich, he is just as willing to say anything. And Karen Garver Santorum once wrote a book on children’s manners, called Everyday Graces. Before that, though, before marrying Rick, the guy whose last name also refers to a frothy mixture of lube and fecal material etc., she was living out of wedlock with an obstetrician who provided abortions. I’m betting that in those days she was a different Karen.

I find hypocrisy and mendacity among politicians somehow reassuring. It goes to show that anyone can be bought, and that in politics the price for which people can be bought is usually rather low. These things make the grim politics of the present less surprising.

However, when I think about how much contempt I have for Rick Santorum and how sure I am that somewhere in him lurks an anally-compulsive disco boy—why all the comments about how horrible it would be if people were allowed to do anything— I then start thinking about Bella. Bella is three years old and was born with Trisomy 18, which is a genetic condition not unlike Down Syndrome, but with more serious health complications. The list of potentially lethal effects of Trisomy 18, in fact, is rather terrifying. Half of children born with Trisomy 18 die upon birth, and 90% die within the first year. Santorum himself has indicated that while he was campaigning in Iowa at the end of 2011, Bella was having a lot of trouble breathing and had to be sent home to Virginia to be cared for by a nurse.

Now: when Bella was in utero Santorum and his wife presumably were able to have an amniotic fluid test to determine that Bella had a genetic abnormality, which Bella was more likely to have, because of Karen Santorum’s age at the time of the pregnancy, and they were able to decide to carry Bella to term because that is consistent with Santorum’s positions on abortion. More power to them. When my daughter was in utero, my wife and I decided not to get the amniotic fluid test because of the risk of miscarriage for “geriatric” moms, and because we agreed we would be content to have a child with Down’s Syndrome (Trisomy 21), if it came to that, which it did not. I commend the Santorums for carrying Bella to term and for caring for her now that she is here. Some people are not physically like the majority of us, and yet we can still love them deeply.

This is the sort of thing that bears repeating. Even when you are Pro Choice in all cases.

Still, Just as I found Sarah Palin’s use of Trig on the campaign trail in 2008 slightly sinister, so have I found Bella’s appearances in Iowa sinister, and I’m glad she is back in Virginia where her breathing problems can be monitored carefully. But as a parent myself I am afraid I am also thinking about how keen is the absence of a child especially during a professional year as demanding as what Santorum is going through now, assuming Santorum is capable of human emotions. Yes, he has six other children, one of whom, an older daughter, acts as a spokesman for her dad. This daughter recently indicated that the family carries around lapel buttons depicting Bella, so that she is uppermost in their thoughts no matter where they are. Publicity stunt? Or grief manifested?

And what does Bella think about exactly? And how often is she affixed to the breathing apparatus? Does she think about the discomfort of the mask? Does she miss her parents? Are there certain repetitive images, screensavers, let’s say, that are capable of keeping her mesmerized for hours? Will there ever be an age when Bella Santorum can understand party politics? Will she respond to love? Will she, like a friend of mine who has Trisomy 21, love Elvis? And when they say that those kids who survive a childhood with Trisomy 18 will “live into adulthood,” what does that mean? Will she live out a complete term? Or will she devastate her parents and her siblings down the road? Does she realize that there is something about her that is unlike other children? What will the Santorums do with her if her dad wins the nomination? (Unlikely, I know.) Does Bella feel the pressures of the campaign? Does she care what her dad does? Will she welcome him home when he loses? How did she feel in that one impressive publicity photo she did with her dad, where he seems to have John Boehner’s tan on? Was that love enough for her? And is she named after Queen Isabella? Or Isabella Adjani? Wouldn’t we all love Bella? If Bella were sitting in our lap?

Easy to loath Santorum. Easy to love that Internet buffoon that Dan Savage has made of him. But what about Bella? Have you thought about Bella?


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →