Rick Santorum may have saved his wife’s life, but he doesn’t want you to know that. Here’s his version of what happened after he and his wife chose to perform fetal surgery on their baby, as told to NPR’s Terry Gross:

Like many medical procedures, there’s a risk of infection, and when the procedure was done-obviously you open up the womb to outside instruments and other things when you have a surgery done. And unfortunately, as a result of that, several days after the surgery she-my wife had an infection in the uterus which caused her to go into labor. And the baby was delivered, and Gabriel was 21-plus weeks old and he was born alive. And he lived for two hours, and he was not old enough or well-developed enough to have survived beyond that. And so we gave comfort care to him for those two hours in which he lived.

It’s possible that the above represents the sum total of the story. It’s also possible, as others have claimed, that once the infection took hold, Senator Santorum and his wife elected to administer antibiotics in order to save her life, knowing that to do so was to bring on labor before the baby was viable outside the womb. In other words, Rick Santorum chose a procedure which would terminate his wife’s pregnancy in order to save her life.

Can you blame him?

Much has been made of the fact that the Santorums later brought the baby, which they named Gabriel, home so that their other children could see him and say good-bye. A mass was performed at their home, which Santorum believed would be more personal than sending his baby directly to a funeral home. I know that some people find this gruesome, but I completely understand it. Clearly, the Santorum’s loved this little baby and were heartbroken at his death. People cope with grief in a variety of ways and personally I have no trouble empathizing with the Santorums in this matter. I hope it gave them and their children some comfort to know that they took care of little Gabriel in the best way they could. And I hope that afterward they were surrounded by loving and empathetic family and friends who helped them mourn his passing.

But clearly empathy is not what Santorum took away from the experience. In fact it is the one thing that seems to be utterly lacking in Santorum’s public positioning on the subject of reproductive rights.

From the moment they discovered all was not right with the pregnancy, he and his wife had choices. They chose a risky surgery, which they knew would endanger their son’s life. Later, if the stories are true, they chose to administer antibiotics, which they knew would end his life. The fact that he was born alive and survived for 2 hours may provide them with some moral cover, but it in no way changes the fact that their choices–the risky surgery and (possibly) the application of antibiotics, caused their baby to be born before the age of viability.

Santorum claims that this experience is what solidified his across-the-board opposition to abortion. He has painted the incident as a demonstration of how a dyed-in-the-wool abortion opponent must inevitably act in the face of tragic circumstances. But this is hogwash. The Santorums could have chosen not to perform the surgery in the first place. The baby might have survived. They admit there was a chance he would have. They could additionally have chosen not to administer antibiotics, something Santorum’s wife, apparently, considered. They also could have chosen to terminate the pregnancy once they discovered the problem in the first place. The point is they had, and made, choices. They made the choices that made the most sense to them. Maybe you would have chosen differently. I think, given the same circumstances, I probably would have made the same choices. If anything, the Santorum’s experience is a demonstration of the dignity and compassion of choice. Biology can be cruel and capricious, thrusting us into horrifying choices we may feel ill-equipped to make. But make them we must. Sometimes they work out for the best, sometimes they don’t.

I believe the Santorums behaved with grace, dignity, and love under enormously tragic circumstances. And if they were a private couple minding their own business, I would leave it that. But they are a very public couple attempting to foist their absolutist reproductive philosphy on the rest of us. Therefore it is our responsibility to examine what they claim to be the foundation of this philosophy. The Santorums claim that their experience with little Gabriel bolstered beliefs they already had on the subject of reproductive rights. But I believe the experience was actually a direct challenge to their absolutist philosophy. I think they feel guilty for making choices that ultimately led to the death of their baby. And in response they have recast the experience–quite possibly with critical deletions–in order to nullify its guilt-causing components. They want, and perhaps need, to believe that they did everything they could to save their baby’s life and that they did nothing to hasten his demise. But the facts simply don’t line up this way.

To be clear, I do not believe the Santorums should feel guilty about the choices they made. They saved a mother’s life. But the fact of the matter is that simply by exerting their right to make choices which would lead to the premature delivery of their baby, they stepped way out of their pro-life comfort zone. And instead of being honest with themselves about it and allowing the experience to educate them on the bewildering and sometimes cruel nuances of pregnancy in the real world, they have bent the facts to their pre-conceived philosophy.

On a personal level, I can’t really fault them for doing this. It’s called cognitive disconnect and people do it all the time. It’s the reason why the segments of the population most vocally pro-life are the ones having the most abortions. It’s why the segments of the population most in favor of “family values” are the ones getting the most divorces. It’s human weakness, a tendency to bend reason to our emotional needs. I would let it go, were it not for the fact that Rick Santorum is running for president and wants to impose his absolutist philosophy on the entire nation!

I feel for him and his loss. I honestly do. But would it be asking too much for the man to step outside of his own worldview for a single moment to spare some empathy for the people whose tragic stories he can’t possibly know? Right now a husband is struggling with the same kinds of choices he had to make. Somewhere a woman is struggling with another tragic choice he couldn’t possibly understand. The absolutist pro-life philosophy only works in the abstract. When reality intrudes, a whole world of nuance opens up. This is why the most ardent anti-choicers sometimes find themselves making choices they once demonized and why the government has no place legislating such deeply personal decisions.

A little humility, Mr. Santorum. Some respect, please, for the families undergoing painful decisions right now. Some empathy for the women of this country who only want to know that if and when tragic circumstances arise, their fate will be determined by themselves and their loved ones, and not by an opportunistic politician trying to score points.

And incidentally, for what it’s worth, I think you behaved heroically in protecting your wife and I’m glad you had the choice.