Life vs. Death
The religion of the 'Right to Choose.'
Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
The Party of Death
RAMESH PONNURU'S READERS already know that he is a political writer of considerable intelligence and skill. Now, in his first book, he demonstrates the talent to become an author of considerable influence. His prose is clear and to the point, and the logic of his narrative compels the reader toward accepting the author's conclusions.
At the same time, Ponnuru refrains from engaging in the kind of bitter vituperation and personal invective against those with whom he disagrees that fouls so much of contemporary political discourse. It is refreshing that, in a book that considers some of the most controversial and emotional issues of our time, the meanest thing about The Party of Death is its provocative title.
Ponnuru covers a broad swath of hot-potato cultural and political issues, ranging from abortion, to embryonic stem cell research, to assisted suicide, to the mainstream media's general incompetence and bias in covering these issues. And while he doesn't quite accuse the Democratic party as a whole of representing the "party of death," he comes very close. More precisely, Ponnuru effectively demonstrates that the national Democratic party (there are plenty of local pro-life Democrats) is the primary engine driving our country toward accepting killing as an answer to life's difficulties and a solution to the problems associated with human suffering.
The author's primary target is Roe v. Wade. And here, his thesis about Democrats is unassailable. Supporting the "right to choose" is an uber litmus test for any ambitious party member seeking national influence. Indeed, Ponnuru identifies nationally influential pro-choice Democrats who began their political careers in the pro-life camp: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who used to boast that he had five times served as master of ceremonies at Springfield pro-life rallies, but who now supports partial-birth abortion. Even Delaware senator Joe Biden, who is running for president, once voted to amend the Constitution to reverse Roe.
This is in stark contrast to the big tent Democratic Party of yore that took a far more ecumenical view of abortion. Indeed, some of the party's most esteemed leaders of the past were pro-life, including Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. The Democratic party "was the party of the little guy," Ponnuru quips. "Yet somehow, it turned its back on the littlest guy of all."
The first third of the book effectively deconstructs most, but not all, of the arguments in favor of abortion rights. Ponnuru quotes embryology textbooks to demonstrate unequivocally that, scientifically, human biological life begins with the completion of fertilization. This refutes Mario Cuomo's nonsensical assertion that only religious belief leads to the conclusion that life begins at conception. Then Ponnuru smacks down Cuomo like a professional wrestling champion when he quotes the governor's 1984 Notre Dame speech, in which Cuomo made the stunning assertion that today's Roman Catholic Church should be as "realistic" about abortion as it was about slavery in the pre-Civil War era, an evil the Holy See apparently failed to condemn unequivocally.
"It is a mark of contemporary liberalism's commitment to abortion," Ponnuru writes, "that one of its leading lights should have been willing to support temporizing on slavery in order to defend it."
But Ponnuru doesn't confront as forcefully the primary reason abortion is legal up to and including the moment just prior to birth. This involves competing liberty interests: the right to life of the unborn human being versus the right to personal autonomy of the already-born woman.
Abortion is legal not because a fetus isn't really a human being, or even because it isn't deemed a "person," a philosophical and bioethical notion that attributes moral value to possessing minimal cognitive capacities. Rather, the real nexus of the debate is whether or under what circumstances society should be able to force a pregnant woman to do with her body that which she does not wish to do, namely gestate and give birth. Ponnuru does not sufficiently explain why (in his view) a woman's autonomy right should come second to the right to life of a fetus, particularly early in pregnancy.
He does, however, identify the right question to ask about this and other comparable issues: Does human life have intrinsic value simply because it is human? Answering in the affirmative is crucial to achieving universal human rights. Otherwise, who matters more and who matters less--who lives and who dies--depends on who has the power to decide. Moreover, Ponnuru demonstrates that the wrong answer is the key that opens the door to various killing practices beyond abortion. These include euthanasia, treating nascent and cognitively disabled humans as mere natural resources (embryonic stem cell research, cloned fetal farming, organ harvesting from patients in a persistent vegetative state, etc.), and resurrecting eugenics policies that would not only wipe out people with Down Syndrome, which is already happening, but also potentially lead to genetic engineering aimed at creating a "post-human" race of superbeings.
Ponnuru shows that the national Democratic party is either enthusiastically supportive of these other agendas, or at least more likely to be friendly to them. Indeed, while embryonic stem cell research divides Republicans, supporting embryonic stem cell research and human therapeutic cloning are now almost as much a litmus test for national Democrats as is supporting abortion. Ponnuru illustrates this point by ridiculing Ron Reagan's hyping of the curative potential of human cloning in his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He also names some Republican supporters of cloning and embryonic stem cell research as adjunct members of the party of death. Anti-abortion senator Orrin Hatch of Utah apparently believes that the location of an embryo determines whether it is human, while Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who once said that he would never support creating embryos for research, now supports therapeutic cloning that would do just that.
Democrats are also more likely to support legalizing assisted suicide, although it must be said that the great sorting-out between the parties on this issue is not nearly as sharp as it was with abortion. Perhaps this is because one of the Democrats' primary constituencies is the disability rights movement, which also happens to implacably oppose assisted suicide.
Ponnuru closes by ruminating on the potential political impact of the demise of Roe v. Wade. While some believe it would hurt the Republican party, he is not so sure: In the end, he hopes, allowing the people actually to decide the extent to which abortion should be legal may eventually result in the demise of the cultural party of death:
If abortion had not become the law of the land, we might not now be debating euthanasia or the killing of human embryos for research purposes. The same process might work in reverse. The more we reject abortion, the more we might come to reject other choices for death, too. . . . Most Americans already know that abortion is wrong. If Roe falls--when it falls--pro lifers will be able to demonstrate another truth about abortion: We can live without it.
Agree or disagree with Ramesh Ponnuru's measured, yet passionate, defense of the pro-life cause, The Party of Death is a book worthy of being read and pondered.
Wesley J. Smith is the author, most recently, of a revised and updated Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and the New Duty to Die.