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Santorum challenges policy on prenatal testing

By Tom Cohen, CNN
February 20, 2012 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama's campaign calls Santorum's comments "misinformed and dangerous"
  • Former senator says prenatal testing such as amniocentesis increases abortions
  • The government should not mandate health care coverage of such tests, Santorum says
  • Republican's comments continue a series of harsh attacks on president

Washington (CNN) -- The government shouldn't make health care providers fully cover prenatal tests like amniocentesis, which can determine the possibility of Down syndrome or other fetal problems, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said Sunday.

Santorum, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights, told the CBS News program "Face the Nation" on Sunday that amniocentesis "more often than not" results in abortion.

"People have the right to do it, but to have the government force people to provide it free, to me, is a bit loaded," he said.

The former Pennsylvania senator was arguing against what he called a mandate in the health care legislation passed by President Barack Obama and Democrats in 2010. He said Saturday at an appearance in Ohio that the law was intended to increase abortions and reduce overall health care costs.

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"One of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America," Santorum, a conservative Roman Catholic, told a Christian Alliance luncheon in Columbus. "Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society."

He added that the requirement was "another hidden message as to what President Obama thinks of those who are less able."

The White House referred CNN to Obama's re-election campaign for comment, and campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith called Santorum's remarks "the latest in a long string of unfortunate comments in the race to the bottom that the Republican presidential primary has become."

"Prenatal screenings are essential to promote the health of both the mother and baby and to ensure safe deliveries," Smith said. "These misinformed and dangerous comments reinforce why women cannot trust any of the Republican candidates for president."

On Sunday, Santorum mentioned his own experience with this 3-year-old daughter Isabella, who has Trisomy 18, a chromosome disorder that often results in stillbirths or early childhood death. He said prenatal testing showed the problem, and doctors recommend abortion in virtually all cases.

Such a recommendation is common when any problem is detected through amniocentesis, said Santorum, who added that in such cases "we know that 90% of Down syndrome children are aborted."

Some studies since the late 1990s do suggest a high percentage of women terminate their pregnancies after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis, with one British study putting the figure as high as 92 percent. A 2005 study of nearly 1,100 pregnant women found 76% would consider an abortion if tests indicated their child would be born with Down syndrome.

Now considered the main conservative challenger to the more moderate Mitt Romney, Santorum has shed a more understated demeanor to challenge both Romney and Obama as the Republican campaign heads toward a series of key primaries in coming weeks, including Super Tuesday on March 6.

He continued throwing out the cultural red meat for primary voters Sunday night, telling a rally at a Georgia church that Obama was intent on starting a cultural war. As the audience roared with applause, he called on the country to build a foundation that will "defend the church, defend the family, defend the nonprofit community, defend them from a government that wants to weaken them."

His attack on insurance coverage for prenatal testing was the latest in a series of controversial comments he has made since surging to the top tier of polls in the Republican presidential race. He also found himself defending other Saturday comments regarding Obama's religion, appearing to question the president's adherence to Bible-based Christian theology.

Santorum said Saturday the president was not motivated by concerns for ordinary Americans but by "some phony ideal, some phony theology.

"Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology. But no less a theology," he said.

Asked about those remarks on CBS, Santorum said he was referring to Obama's energy policies, which he said favored what he called radical environmentalism. Asked specifically if he was questioning Obama's Christian beliefs, Santorum said: "I wasn't suggesting the president is not a Christian. I accept the fact the president is a Christian."

Instead, he said he was taking on what he called "an attempt to centralize power in the government."

"I'm talking about the belief that man should be in charge of the Earth," Santorum said, and then in specific reference to Obama: "I am talking about his worldview and the way he approaches problems in this country."

But former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Sunday that Santorum's comments continued the kind of character attacks he said were typical of the GOP presidential race.

"I think that if you make comments like that, you make comments that are well over the line," Gibbs told ABC's "This Week."

"I think this GOP primary, in many cases .... has been a race to the bottom. We have seen nastiness, divisiveness, ugliness, distortions of opponents' records, of the president's records," he said. The negative tone of the campaign was hurting the Republican candidates and causing low turnout numbers in some of the primaries so far, Gibbs added.

"It's just time to get rid of this mindset in our politics that, if we disagree, we have to question character and faith," Gibbs said. "Those days have long passed in our politics. Our problems and our challenges are far too great."

The issues raised by Santorum follow another religious-themed controversy over the Obama administration's decision to require church-affiliated hospitals and other institutions to provide employees with health care coverage for contraception.

Catholic bishops vehemently opposed the move, and the administration changed its rule to require health care insurers to provide free coverage for contraception rather than the churches or other religious-based institutions.

Santorum's comments may appeal to some Republican voters who have questioned Obama's faith before, or others who saw the administration's recent contraception mandate as an overreach. Last month, Santorum was criticized by some for not correcting a voter who called the president a Muslim when she stood up to ask a question at one of his campaign town halls.

On Sunday, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who flirted with a presidential bid last year, told the CNN program "State of the Union" that the contraception issue could benefit Republicans if properly approached.

"These are the questions that I think Republicans can unite on," Daniels said. "They do have to be framed, as they really are, as the defense of individual freedom against the right now limitless power of the state."

CNN's Chris Welch, Athena Jones, Ashley Killough and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.

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