MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE January 10, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – George Stephanopoulos, the moderator of Saturday evening’s Republican presidential debate in Manchester, introduced a new issue into this year’s ever-changing presidential race: banning contraception.

Stephanopoulos began a contentious exchange with Mitt Romney by asking, “Do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception, or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

The former Massachusetts governor replied that since no state is considering such a ban, the question was “an unusual topic” and “kind of a silly thing” to ask. After saying he “would totally and completely oppose any effort to ban contraception,” he stated the Supreme Court had wrongly promulgated its “right to privacy” doctrine, and he supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Stephanopoulos was openly booed when he introduced a follow-up by saying, “You’ve given two answers to the question.” He later asked if the Constitution should be amended to ban birth control. “No, states don’t want to ban contraception, so why would we try to put it in the Constitution?” Romney retorted.

“Contraception? It’s working just fine,” Romney said. “Just leave it alone.”

Three of his Republican rivals weighed in on the issue. Ron Paul, whom Romney invoked as an expert on the Constitution, said the Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy, and the Interstate Commerce Clause protected the sale of contraception.

Santorum said two Supreme Court cases had “created, through a penumbra of rights, a new ‘right to privacy’ that was not in the Constitution.”

“I have seven kids,” Jon Huntsman joked, after saying he supported civil unions for same-sex couples. “Glad we’re off the contraception discussion.”

The topic was raised in part by Santorum’s surge, after narrowly losing the Iowa caucuses last week. In October, he told a blogger he would use the bully pulpit to talk about “the dangers of contraception” and “the whole sexual libertine idea.” The two items represented, in his opinion, “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

He later said that, under the Tenth Amendment, states had the theoretical right to pass a law banning contraception.

Last Friday, he told ABC News’ Jake Tapper, “States have the right to pass even dumb laws,” including “a law against buying shoestrings.”

He added while he opposes funding Planned Parenthood, he does not favor outlawing contraceptives that prevent fertilization. “The idea I’m coming after your birth control is absurd,” he said. “I don’t think the government should be involved in that.”

However, many in the pro-life movement draw a clear connection between the two issues. “First let’s be clear: nobody is actually proposing that contraceptives be banned,” said Eric Scheidler, 45, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.  “But,” he told LifeSiteNews.com, “the close connection between contraception and abortion that Rick Santorum points to is one that we need to face squarely. In fact, an honest assessment of how contraception has impacted our society is long overdue.”

The 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a Connecticut statute banning the sale of birth control, after a Planned Parenthood activist opened a clinic in the state. Justice William O. Douglas ruled that, while the Constitution does not specifically contain a right to privacy, “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” 

In a scathing dissent, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the Griswold case caused legal discourse to “descend to the level of a play on words.” Although he called the law “uncommonly silly,” he concluded, “With all deference, I can find no such general right of privacy in the Bill of Rights, in any other part of the Constitution, or in any case ever before decided by this Court.”

The case was raised to new importance eight years later, when Roe v. Wade cited Griswold’s new-found right to privacy as “broad enough to encompass” abortion.

Critics accuse Santorum of being obsessed with the issue of the unborn. The Sunlight Foundation critiqued “the degree to which Santorum favored topics such as abortion, fetuses and wombs when he was serving in Congress’ upper chamber.”

Media observers blasted Stephanopoulos, a former communications director in the Clinton administration, for asking biased and irrelevant questions. Committee For Justice executive director and constitutional lawyer Curt Levey said in a statement, “Knowing that Romney and most Americans would not support a government ban on contraceptives, Stephanopoulos’s apparent goal was to trip up Romney, who believes that Roe v. Wade — in which the Supreme Court relied on a supposed constitutional right to privacy — was wrongly decided.”

Others squirmed at frank talk of sexual issues in a partisan forum. Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post referred to the exchange as “the seven most awkward minutes of our collective lives.”

While some accuse Santorum and other Republican candidates of imposing their morality on the electorate, Newt Gingrich drew attention to the lack of media coverage against “anti-Christian bigotry.”

Gingrich, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, objected, “You don’t hear the opposite question asked. Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples – which is exactly what the state has done? ... Should the Catholic Church find itself discriminated against by the Obama administration in key delivery of services because of the bias and bigotry of the administration? The bigotry question goes both ways, and there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry than there is concern on the other side, and none of it gets covered by the news media.”

Deal Hudson of the Catholic Advocate said Santorum’s success proves “the political viability of a Catholic candidate who does not compromise on social issues and offers real world solutions to the challenges of the budget, the economy, and foreign policy.”

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary takes place on Tuesday. Some villages begin voting at midnight.