Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rick Santorum's message to victims of rape--Public Morality & Criminal Law

I was scrolling through the news today and came across a headline reading, "Rick Santorum: Rape victims 'should make the best of a bad situation' if they get pregnant and give birth to the 'gift from god'". I specifically looked for other articles about Santorum's stance and found article titles such as, "Rick Santorum: 'Make the best' of rape by rejecting abortion" and "Santorum to Rape Victims: 'Make the best Out of a Bad Situation". Appalling. I couldn't believe what I was reading.  Talk about retraumatizing. Not only is he telling victims how they should feel, but what they should do, also. I wanted to verify what was said, so found the following video.

Indeed, Rick Santorum states, "I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created--in the sense of rape--but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given you." It seems Santorum has created a bit of a paradox. While he ends by identifying the product of a woman's rape as a "gift", he begins by calling it something "horribly created".

I am not debating the issue of abortion in this post. I've done that before and with politics on the board right now, I am sure you have been hearing many different perspectives. Instead, reading these articles about Santorum made me think about the lecture I just gave to my Criminology class. As an opener to the class, we talk about the definition of crime. I ask them what television shows they watch that tells them something, true or untrue, about crime. Law & Order,  CSI, Bones, The Sopranos, Criminal Minds...the list goes on and on. Literally, I think the entire 75 minutes could have been filled simply listing various types of entertainment that sends messages about crime. As we talk about these shows, I ask them what message is sent. What do we learn about victims from these shows? Who are they? What do they look like? What about offenders? What do we learn about various types of crime?  How is crime constructed in our society? How do we come to understand a behavior as criminal or not?

In preparation for the this lecture on defining crime, they read an article discussing public morality and criminal law. There are essentially two sides to the debate. The first argues that public morality should not control criminal law, but that criminal law should be created in correspondence with what causes direct harm to others. The law is viewed as an improper instrument for regulating one's private moral conduct. In contrast, the other side of this argument is that criminal law serves an important function in the facilitation of personal responsibility. Thus, criminal law serves as a fundamental means by which individuals learn personal responsibility.

I ask my students to consider two main questions.
1) Should the law control public morality?
2) Can the law control public morality?

Admittedly, I am quite frustrated by not only Santorum's position, but also his choice of words.  As I listened to him and his desire to make abortion illegal, I reran my lecture and the thoughtful, intelligent things my students had to say on the matter through my mind. Santorum, in my opinion, is suggesting he will aim to control my private morality through use of public criminal law. Am I okay with this? Is this what happens everyday, regardless of who the President is? Sadly, I'd say it likely is. And I tell my students that, too. So, we then transition to "Can the law control public morality?"

I've created two polls below to get your thoughts on these questions. Think about whatever issued you'd like. And, in addition to participation in the poll, comments are welcome and hoped for. My students and I engaged in a fantastic dialogue about issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, drug use, prostitution, etc. and the role private morality and public law play. I hope we can do the same here.

For full articles on Rick Santorum's position toward women who are victims of rape, you can click HERE, HERE, and HERE.



  1. Sounds like an interesting class! I found the poll questions a bit difficult to answer actually. While I do not think the law can actually control one's private morality, I do think we currently work under a system in which the law attempts to do so. This goes for a number of issues, many of which it sounds like you and your students discussed.

    Regarding Santorum's statement, I recognize that religion is significant to many people. I remember when the rumors about President Obama were going around that he wasn't Christian. Heaven forbid. I do, however, find it problematic that our country, and it's leaders, are expected to follow a certain way of thought or they are somehow deemed unfit, unsuitable, and unmoral people. Santorum's statements brought this up for me as he continually referenced God. While I by no means am saying he is not entitled to this belief, I simply have a problem with him telling others, who may or may not share those same beliefs, how they should feel.

    Great post! Thanks for the thought provoking morning.

    1. For some reason I can't get a "comment" box that isn't under "reply". Sorry Anonymous...I have to piggyback onto your comment. I think history proves that you can legislate behavior, but you cannot legislate beliefs. You can make it illegal, for instance, to deny anyone access to a public building, but you can't make people believe that law is right, even though they may respect that it is law. So can or should the law control morality? Perhaps another question would be: Is dictating (e.g., via religion) and/or legislating (e.g., laws of the land) "mass morality" even truly possible?

  2. I’ve never thought about criminal law and morality in this sense – really interesting! I also agree that although the law cannot actually control one’s private morality, I suppose the law attempts to in order to create some sort of basis of morality. And I have always seen “politics” defending what you believe would be the best for your nation and running on that platform – isn’t that what all politicians, in theory, do? There are different parties because each person or group believes there are different principles that would be best for this country, but they are all trying to do what they think is best, I suppose.

    In reference to Santorum’s statement about the possibility of a child being created as a result of rape, I don’t believe he describes a paradox at all! I could understand the shocking nature of this statement, but if we remove the context to something less controversial, it might be clear. Many, many gifts in life can result from horrible situations. The first thing that comes to my mind right now is the story of Gabby Giffords. A horrible and horrific thing happened to her in January 2011. She was shot in the head and 12 other people were murdered that day by man who was unwell, angry, and dangerous. This is a HORRIFIC event. And in the wake of it, I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that from this, Gabby has experienced many gifts. She has struggled and persevered and her life will never be the same. I’m sure that she would never have wished this to happen, but there have been so many amazing and beautiful gifts that have stemmed from this tragedy. She has served as a source of inspiration to people who have seen her story, defied medical odds and enkindled hope in those that have worked with her during her recovery, and even if for a brief moment, brought unity to the House…. A beautiful gift has come from a horrible tragedy.

    I understand his point of view. If a woman is raped, she is rendered completely powerless over her own body, she is violated in the most intimate and damaging way imaginable. She is wounded so gut wrenchingly and deeply in a psychological, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sense. I cannot imagine nor do I give the pretense that I could. I don’t think it’s unfair to view abortion in the same light. To ask a rape victim to do the same of her own child – to render her child completely powerless over its own body, violate her own child in the most damaging and terminal way – in this light, seems cruel. I know you were appalled in hearing this statement, but when I heard it, it sounded encouraging. It did not sound as if he was directing rape victims or forcing them into a choice. Rather, encouraging them that there is hope in God’s grace and plan for their lives, even through a horrifying violation. I am very aware that this view is unpopular and that many do not agree with it. I also know that some that have commented here poke fun at not only Santorum’s religious views but anyone who openly refers to their faith (take Tim Tebow for example!). But for many, there is no separation between their “faith life” and their “public life”… it is just their life. I absolutely see your point that no victim should be told how to feel. I am totally in agreement! I’m just saying that I did not internalize his statement as a directive, rather a support and statement of love and encourgement. He acknowledged that the victim would have a choice, but what you quoted him on was in direct reference to how he would, hypothetically, counsel his own daughter if she were ever in this situation.

    Going back to the criminal law and morality issue, it seems to me that there must be some moral “base line” to start with and that the concept behind a politician representing a constituency is that they would act in the mindset of those that they representing when deciding on criminal law (and other issues)… for some this is based on private morality, for others on the basis of what may only harm others, and I’m sure for many it is somewhere in between.

  3. Thank you all for your comments. This is the exact reason I started the blog--to get a dialogue going. It is important that we hear and acknowledge perspectives other than our own, even when, and perhaps especially when, we may not agree with them.