GOP candidates blast Obama for birth control ruling

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, makes a point as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Updated at 10:15 p.m. ET

The Republican presidential candidates used a debate Wednesday night to blast President Obama for his recent decisions surrounding birth control coverage and lamented the breakdown of the family unit in American society.

"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said.

He cited a unanimous Supreme Court decision that came down on the opposite side of the Obama administration on the issue of a "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws. "His position on religious tolerance, on religious conscience is clear, and it's one of the reasons the people in this country are saying we want to have a president who will stand up and fight for the rights under our Constitution, our first right, which is for freedom of religion," Romney said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich excoriated the "elite media" for failing to question Mr. Obama in the 2008 campaign about voting "in favor of legalizing infanticide." He was referring to Mr. Obama's opposition as an Illinois state senator to legislation that would have defined any aborted fetus that showed signs of life as a "born alive infant" entitled to legal protection, even if doctors believe it could not survive.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum was specifically asked about an interview he gave last year in which he talked about the "dangers" of contraception.

The social conservative said he was talking about the broader issue of family values, including the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock and sexually active teens.

"The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing," he said. "And someone has got to go out there -- I will -- and talk about the things."

Santorum stressed that "just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it."

However, in last year's interview, Santorum suggested a public policy prescription for issues relating to birth control. "I'm not running for preacher. I'm not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues," he said.

On the debate stage, Santorum used the issue to criticize Romney for the health care reforms he implemented in Massachusetts, calling them a model for Mr. Obama's health reforms.

"The whole reason this issue is alive is because of the bill that you drafted in Massachusetts, Romneycare, which was the model for Obamacare and the government takeover of health care," he said.

Romney retorted that Mr. Obama's reforms only passed because former Sen. Arlen Specter -- whom Santorum backed over his more conservative opponent Pat Toomey -- voted in favor of them.

"If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare," Romney said to Santorum. "So don't look at me. Take a look in the mirror."

More from the debate:

Santorum fights charges he's a "fake" conservative
Republican candidates spar over congressional spending
Republican candidates condemn auto bailout

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