Paul Ryan and his wife, Janna, have three very cute young children. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, are the parents of five grown sons and the proud grandparents of eighteen. Normally, beyond supplying the requisite photo ops to assure voters that the presidential ticket is composed of “good family men” (or women), the actual number of individuals in such candidates’ family does not gather much attention. Normally, moreover, I would not feel comfortable writing about the private reproductive choices of candidates, and especially those of their wives and children. But of course, these are hardly normal times in American politics, given the centrality of the radical agenda on reproduction in the contemporary Republican Party—and Romney and Ryan’s enthusiastic endorsement of this agenda, which if passed, would bring misery to millions of Americans.
Both Paul Ryan’s relatively small family and Mitt Romney’s quite large one reveal the reproductive minefields for Republican candidates who presumably are expected to show obedience, in their personal lives, to the party’s extremist platform. The Ryans’ reproductive choices, in particular, may also be an example of the perennial hypocrisy of politicians who do not live by the rules they seek to establish for others.
Let’s consider, first, the number of children that Paul Ryan has. He and his wife married in 2000. Let us assume they have not made use of birth control in their married life (which would make Janna Ryan among the 2 percent of Catholic women who have not used contraception.) This should be a fair assumption to make, given that Ryan is a co-sponsor of a federal “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” which among other things, would prohibit many forms of birth control, and he has been a firm opponent of family planning programs.
But the fact that only three children have emerged in 12 years of marriage is puzzling. Figures from the respected Contraceptive Technology website show that 85 percent of women in couples where no contraceptive method is used for a year will experience an unintended pregnancy. If the Ryans have been using so-called “natural family planning”, also known as “fertility awareness-based methods,” then their chances of an unintended pregnancy in a given year would have been 25 percent. Had Paul Ryan used a condom, his wife’s chance of an unintended pregnancy in a year would be 15 percent. In short, it is hard to understand how this marriage of 12 years has produced only 3 children, unless this couple have used more reliable methods of birth control. (It is, of course, possible that the Ryans have experienced infertility issues, in which case they have my sincere sympathy).
As for Mitt Romney, a decidedly awkward aspect for him with respect to his large number of grandchildren is that, as the New York Times reported, at least three of them were born to his son, Tagg, through the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy. Furthermore, according to Mother Jones, “Two of Tagg’s brothers reportedly have struggled with infertility issues and resorted to IVF as well.” But Romney is well-remembered, in pro-choice and religious right circles alike, for his answer of “absolutely” when Mike Huckabee, a favorite of the religious right, asked if he would support a constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception—an amendment which, if passed, would not only outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception, but would also criminalize IVF, the very procedure by which some of his grandchildren came into being.
The Ryans’ probable use of birth control and the Romney family’s use of IVF are only the latest examples of a long string of Republican candidates being caught in an understandable inability to live up to the absolutist demands of their party. Remember, in 1988, vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s “gaffe” (which many considered his most human moment of the campaign) when he admitted to a reporter that “I’d support my daughter” if she chose to have an abortion? Or George H.W. Bush, in 1980, hurriedly agreeing to officially disown his support for abortion rights, so Ronald Reagan would find him an acceptable running mate?
The difference between these earlier incidents and now is that then the reproductive minefields were specifically about abortion. Now, not only has the ante been raised with respect to abortion—high profile Republican candidates are currently expected to disavow the traditional exceptions for rape and incest—but support for contraception and assisted reproduction can prove toxic to candidates as well. (Tagg Romney’s use of IVF did not go unnoticed in anti-choice circles). It remains to be seen how these extreme positions, let alone the Republican candidates’ difficulties in living up to them, will be a factor in November’s election.