Ruth Marcus
Columnist February 23, 2012

I was getting ready to write something nice about Rick Santorum. Then Rick Santorum talked me out of it.

The nice thing was about the former Pennsylvania senator’s self-described support for Title X, the federally funded family planning program that provides contraceptive services for low-income women.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Santorum has pointed to his support for Title X in explaining his position on contraception: personally opposed but not in favor of imposing that view on others.

Hmmm, impressive. Especially impressive because Mitt Romney has said he would eliminate funding for Title X. Evidence, it would seem, that Santorum can separate his personal morality from his public policy stances.

Indeed, after Santorum mega-donor Foster Friess “humorously” suggested that women practice birth control by putting an aspirin between their legs, Santorum defended himself by invoking Title X.

“It’s funny that I’ve been criticized by Governor Romney and by Ron Paul for having voted for something called Title X, which is actually federal funding of contraception,” Santorum told CBS’s Charlie Rose. “My public policy beliefs are that contraception should be available. Again, I’ve supported Title X funding.”

Excellent. Except, here is Santorum, five days later, at the Arizona presidential debate:

“As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things,” Santorum said.

“What I did, because Title X was always pushed through . . . I said, well, if you’re going to have Title X funding, then we’re going to create something called Title XX, which is going to provide funding for abstinence-based programs.”

When it comes to flip-flops, this is a land speed record. If Santorum has “always opposed Title X funding,” you sure can’t tell from his record. The CBS interview wasn’t some stray comment — it’s consistent with what Santorum has been saying on the campaign trail, and for years before.

Santorum 2006: “From a governmental point of view, I support, you know, Title X . . . and have voted for contraception.”

Romney tried to call Santorum on his about-face. “You didn’t say, ‘This is something I was opposed to; it wasn’t something I would have done,’ ” Romney noted. “You said this in a positive light, ‘I voted for Title X.’ ”

The notion that this is a black mark on Santorum’s record — the fact that the Arizona audience booed Santorum when he began to explain away his vote in favor of Title X — illustrates just how extreme the Republican debate has become.

Requiring religious institutions to spend their own money on contraceptive coverage that violates their moral views is one thing. I thought that the Obama administration erred initially when it failed to exempt Catholic hospitals and charities from the requirement.

But opposing a program that prevents unwanted pregnancies — and therefore reduces the number of abortions — is crazy. According to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, “contraceptive services provided at Title X-supported centers helped prevent 973,000 unintended pregnancies in 2008, which would likely have resulted in 432,600 unintended births and 406,200 abortions.”

The case against Title X funding tends to center on the money the program provides to Planned Parenthood, and the group’s simultaneous involvement in performing abortions.

“Gov. Romney simply does not believe that federal taxpayer dollars should be used to fund groups that provide abortions or abortion-related services,” campaign spokesman Andrea Saul told me in an e-mail. “This is particularly so during a time of massive budget deficits and out-of-control spending.”

This argument makes no sense, even if you accept the fungibility of money to Planned Parenthood argument. Less than a quarter of Title X funds — $70 million of $327 million — go to Planned Parenthood. As a matter of fiscal responsibility, this is a smart investment. Preventing unwanted pregnancies saves money.

And if Romney, Santorum et al. want to eliminate Title X family planning money, do they also want to zero out Medicaid contraceptive coverage, which amounts to much more than Title X funding (more than $1 billion) and which also goes to Planned Parenthood?

The candidates would do well to heed the advice of a fellow Republican: “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic,” he said. “If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.”

The Republican was George H.W. Bush, then a Texas congressman, arguing for the creation of Title X in 1969. But that was four decades — and a different Republican Party — ago.

marcusr@washpost.com