This week I had the great honor of interviewing the woman I hope will be the First Lady in 2013. As I picked up the phone to call her, my nerves were jumping and I was praying she wouldn’t notice. After just a minute of talking with her, it felt as relaxed as having coffee and dessert with a good friend. Karen Santorum is warm, gracious, completely genuine, down-to-earth, immensely likable, and filled with a spirit of love.
We spoke at length about everything from campaign life to family life to faith and trials, and the serious concerns she has about the direction our nation is headed. She is highly motivated to fight for our country alongside her husband, Senator Rick Santorum, and believe me, she’s got the steel for it.
What struck me the most was the distinct lack of ego in their decision to run for President. For them, it’s not about Rick trying to win something for himself – it’s about preserving a nation for their children and simply following the road God has laid in front of them.
JH: How did you and Rick come to the decision to run for President?
KS: We’re doing this because we truly believe God is leading, and we have to be faithful. We spent more than a year praying about this, talking with our friends, our families, our spiritual advisors, and our children. It was a long process of talking it out, and we all had some real reservations. I had no desire at all to jump back into the political arena. We were in that life for 17 years and now I had a different vision for my family. Our kids all had their own thoughts and concerns, too. The boys wanted their Dad to continue coaching their baseball team, for instance. They weren’t too sure they wanted to share their Dad with the whole country. It’s a real sacrifice for them.
Rick and I both said that if even one of the children had said they didn’t want Dad doing this, we absolutely would not have done it. But they are behind their Dad all the way, and the whole process is teaching them a lot about the way our political process works and how a President is elected. We’re very protective of our family time when Rick is able to be home these days, and we maximize that time together. No one is allowed to intrude!
To be honest, Rick had no desire to run until Obamacare. That was the final straw for him, the line in the sand. Something has to be done. That law will change our country fundamentally forever, and as parents of a special-needs child we knew that they would be the first to be denied care under Obamacare. Rick and I can’t stand on the sidelines and allow Obama to bring our nation to its knees. We knew we had to get in and fight.
But ultimately, we are just trusting God and praying for His will to be done. He could end this tomorrow and we’d be at peace with it. It could be God’s will that Rick just has a voice in the mix; it could be God’s will that he get to the Caucus and he’s not the guy; or it could be His will that Rick is the guy. Trust and be faithful is all any of us can do.
JH: What are the unique gifts and strengths that Rick brings to the table to solve our nation’s biggest challenges?
KS: Most important, he’s rock-solid. Rick is rooted in his faith and has a solid foundation. You get what you see. He walks the walk. He’s someone who goes after the issues with such a passion. Preserving marriage, the sanctity of Life; these are things we really have to roll up our sleeves and fight for. He’s also brilliant in matters of the economy and national security. He has a mind for history and facts and numbers. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be a great leader to this nation.
JH: Why should Catholics vote for Rick Santorum?
KS: He’s a devout Catholic who lives his faith, is very prayerful and will always stay grounded. He’s a loving, devoted, faithful husband and father. It’s one thing to take the pro-life stance and another thing to fight for it and yet another thing to live it. Rick lives it every day.
Catholics in America need to understand the critical importance of their votes in 2012. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both elected because they won the Catholic vote. That is not to our credit! I see America right now literally poised on the edge of a cliff, and Catholics will decide whether the nation goes over the edge or gets pulled back. We have a huge responsibility.
Life with Bella
Here is where Karen’s heart and passion come shining through. Here is also where the mama bear’s claws come out. In 2008, Rick and Karen welcomed little Isabella to their family. Just four days after her birth, they got the devastating news that Bella has Trisomy 18, a rare and usually fatal genetic disease. Since that moment, they have intensely battled our culture of death, protecting their daughter from being euthanized and fighting for her medical care. Most doctors urge women to abort babies with genetic diseases, and many such infants are euthanized after birth in order to “relieve their suffering.”
Listen to Karen talk about Bella, and you’ll hear one word over and over: blessing. Rick and Karen want the whole world to know the joy they’ve found in their sweet angel.
KS: After having Bella I had to relearn how to live my life. Now I’m a blessed mother of a special-needs child. Since her birth, I’ve learned that God truly has a reason for everything. Like every one of us, God has a purpose for her. Bella has made all of us grow in our faith like never before, made us more virtuous and shown us God’s love and mercy. Her life is a very happy and joyful life. Bella is an angel. I truly believe I am in the care of a saint.
We are so blessed to be her parents and her family. Yes, there’s also a painful side of the journey because you’re fighting for her life, to have her treated with the same dignity as every other child.
JH: What would you say to those facing the possibility of a child with Trisomy 18 and wondering whether they can handle it? Maybe a woman tempted to abort a baby she is convinced will only know suffering?
KS: It doesn’t make any sense to me that we choose death over love. You never lose with love. It’s never made any sense that when a doctor says your child has whatever defect, he then says “let’s kill the baby.” If the doctor said that about your five year-old you’d be outraged! As parents we’re wired to do everything possible to save our child. Why does that not apply to these sweet babies in the womb who need our love and care? Just simply bring your child into the world and love your child. You don’t know what God has planned.
Bella is the greatest “burden” I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t trade the blessings that have come with her for anything in the world.
JH: Is it safe to say that special-needs children and their parents will have a fierce advocate in the White House under President Santorum?
KS: Oh, absolutely! I have a real fire in the belly about this issue. It’s heartbreaking what these families go through. I was a NICU nurse for years and I thought I understood, but in fact, I was clueless. Now I know; now I get it. Until you’re in it every day, you just don’t know.
I’m on a mission to get every obstetrician and geneticist in the country to change the way they think and especially the way they talk about genetic diseases like Trisomy 18. When a doctor says your child has a “lethal diagnosis” that is “incompatible with life” – those words are toxic. Those words lead to death. Doctors need to stop saying those words.
I can’t tell you how many battles we’ve fought with doctors who wouldn’t even call Bella by her name. These children are denied the dignity they deserve as human beings. Parents should not have to fight for their children to receive medical care. This is why it’s critical that we get rid of Obamacare. Special-needs kids will be seen as lives not worth living and they’ll be the first to go.
We’re grateful that Bella now has a good team of doctors who take great care of her and she’s doing great! I love Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Other hospitals we’ve been to didn’t even want to try to give Bella the care or help she needed – she wasn’t worth it to them. At CHP, their philosophy is, “Just give the babies a chance.” Amen!
JH: Years before Bella was born, you and Rick experienced a “crisis pregnancy” and you lost your son, Gabriel.* Again, you battled the culture of death. It was the same time Rick was fighting in the U.S. Senate to pass the Partial-birth Abortion Ban. You were living exactly the scenario the abortion peddlers point to as proof that we "need" abortion.
KS: Before Gabriel we always had picture-perfect pregnancies. Then to have a baby with a fatal defect – that’s how the doctors say it – right at the time of the Partial-birth abortion debate, that was no coincidence. God blessed us with the gift of “why.” As though He said, “Here’s why I’m doing this.” We saw the fruits of our son’s life and the significance of it.
Before Gabriel, I thought I was pretty strong and could handle just about any cross. Any cross except the death of a child or a sick child, I told the Lord. Don’t give me those! But I’ve gotten both! Our crosses come in all shapes and sizes, but we’re better because of them. All you can do is embrace the cross God gave you and thank Him for it, because there’s definitely a reason. Even in the worst times God’s light shines through and He is working.
Family, Faith and Church
Karen dreams of getting 8 hours of sleep someday. For now, she’s up by 0600 and doesn’t quit til midnight.
JH: How do you juggle all the demands of the campaign and family life and still keep your sanity?
KS: It’s not easy. It’s a cross to do without Rick at home these days. He’s on the battlefield right now fighting the battles God wants him to fight. The only way I get through it is daily mass and keeping my prayer life in order. Daily mass, prayer time, family rosary; these things give you strength and I notice a real difference. I know if I’m not there I won’t be able to walk this walk.
JH: Any advice on passing the Faith on to our children? What have you and Rick done that’s worked well?
KS: It’s a work in progress! They’re not going to get the Faith if you don’t live it. Live it with a lot of love. If you talk, but don’t live it, or maybe there’s anger, they’re not going to get it. You have to live it. The family rosary has been a beautiful thing for our family. It’s the time we can all come together again and you’re praying, and offering your prayers for so many other people.
The most important thing is, do it with love. Always with love, never with force. You just can’t teach the Faith without the love of Christ. It has to be infused with love.
JH: Why be Catholic in 2011? Isn’t the Church outdated and full of criminals?
KS: God’s truth never changes. No matter how modern we get or where we are technologically, God’s truth is the same throughout the ages. We can still be pure in the middle of a modern world! The terrible betrayals and disgusting scandals have served to prove one thing: God is in charge. Despite the sin and failings of men over the centuries, God is still in control and we’re still here. We are human and we’re going to fail and make terrible mistakes, but God is leading His Church. We can never forget His love and mercy.
As I finish writing this, the Church is celebrating the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. My time with Karen left me keenly aware that I’d met a woman who knows the Cross intimately. She knows the suffering and the pain, yet she is radiant with hope, overflowing with Love. She understands that embracing and carrying our cross always leads to triumph. Her strength and faith is, quite bluntly, awe-inspiring. It is abundantly clear that Rick is forged by that same fire, and possesses the strength and courage born of a deep love of Christ and His cross. That, folks, is a house built on rock.
That’s the stuff great leaders are made of.
* I highly recommend Karen's book, Letters to Gabriel, which chronicles the entire story of little Gabriel's life and death.