The Party of Death by Ramesh Ponnuru

Even before Ramesh Ponnuru’s new book, The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, came out it was being attacked. As is sadly all too common these days, “reviewers” at Amazon and bloggers began to complain that the book’s title was inflammatory, hypocritical, etc. They sought to discredit the author and dismiss the book.

As a result of this – and to be fair certain of the book’s marketing material – some will be tempted to dismiss this book as another hyper-partisan attack; as just another book of GOP talking points cranked out by a pundit. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Party of Death is tightly argued, meticulously researched, and remarkably rant free. It might very well be the definitive book on “life issues” for years to come.

Much of the controversy could have been avoided if people would have bothered to read the book first (I know, but one can hope). Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, lays out what he means by the title in the introduction:

The phrase is meant to be descriptive, not (purely) pejorative. The party’s core members are those who explicitly deny that all human beings are equal in having a right to life and who propose the creation of a category of “human non-persons” who can be treated as expendable.

Ponnuru goes on to say that these views “can be defended with intelligence and sophistication” and that the term “should not be confused with a conventional political party.” This is not the language of a partisan hack. Does Ponnuru criticize the Democratic Party and politicians? Yes, and it is simply reality that the Democrats are the political party whose platform and leadership is most committed to the policies being discussed. But Ponnuru does not refrain from criticizing Republicans who support the same ideas and policies.

But let’s get back to the book itself. Despite the complex scientific, legal, and philosophical arguments that often get dragged into these debates, Ponnuru’s foundation is really quite simple:

If human beings have an intrinsic dignity and worth, then they have this dignity and worth simply because they are human beings. It follows that all human beings have this dignity and worth. They are equal in the fundamental rights that attach to being human.

He also notes that this worth can’t depend on any particular quality (race, age, sex, etc.) or any particular stage of development or condition. If they do, then we are well on our way to a host of ideas and policies that we wisely reject out of hand (or at least most of us do) such as euthanasia and infanticide.

The science involved with the question of when life begins is not ambiguous. As Ponnuru points out:

The formation of the embryo marks the beginning of a new human life: a new and complete organism that belongs to the human species. Embryology textbooks say so, with no glimmer of uncertainty or ambiguity.

If we attempt to use different criteria for deciding when life is sacred we leave behind a bright line and enter a gray area. If we use abstract mental functioning, for example, where do we draw that line? Newborns haven’t developed complex reasoning yet, is it right to kill them? What about older adults who have lost some of their mental capacity?

Ponnuru also points out the perverse results of this scenario on society at large. Wouldn’t the people who have more of the deciding quality – say complex reasoning – logically be regarded as having greater worth, dignity, and rights than those who have less? If the basis of value is a particular quality rather than simply being human, we are led to a hierarchical system of rights and value. This undermines the equality before the law that is the foundation for our democracy.

Time and again Ponnuru cuts through the obfuscation, deception, and double speak to remind us of this simple principle. Either human beings have the right to life or they don’t; either they have this fundamental equality or they don’t. Some in the party of death will go to great lengths to avoid facing this because they don’t like where it leads philosophically or politically. But Ponnuru insists on holding their feet to the fire.

But of course, the issue is more than just a philosophical one. Ponnuru begins his story with the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. As in the philosophical discussion, Ponnuru again cuts through the fog. Myth and misunderstanding have been following in the wake of this historic case since the decision came down. The courts, the media, politicians, and interest groups have all attempted to hide the true implications of Roe in order to moderate its perceived impact and implications.

Not Ponnuru: “The unvarnished truth is that the Supreme Court struck down the laws of the fifty states to mandate abortion-on-demand at any stage of pregnancy.”

This decision has stymied and warped our laws and cultural in a myriad of ways. And it has changed the political landscape as a result. One such change has been the gradual realignment of the political parties. Over the course of the last few decades the Democratic Party has generally become the party of abortion on demand while the Republican Party has become the pro-life party.

Obviously, there are pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats, but the platform and leadership of the Democratic Party supports abortion without restriction while the Republican Party is the home of the vast majority of pro-lifers. The current GOP majority would not be possible without the votes of the pro-life community.

A tragic consequence of this ruling, however, has been the further weakening of the respect for life. Ponnuru outlines just how far down the slippery slope we have slid. From philosophers who argue for infanticide and euthanasia; to the willingness of a majority of Americans to support abortion for potentially disabled children and the resulting abortions of untold Down Syndrome babies; to the willingness of politicians to push aside morality and ethics in the name of scientific progress; it is a troubling pattern.

The Party of Death makes clear the connection between the status quo abortion regime put in place by Roe and our inability to set clear ethical boundaries on issues like stem cell research and assisted suicide. Ponnuru reveals how philosophers like Peter Singer who argue for euthanasia and infanticide are merely being logically consistent. What keeps pro-choicers who reject these ideas from doing so is not philosophical rigor but an unwillingness to face the ramifications of their beliefs.

Such sloppy thinking is no defense from the constant drumbeat of progress or the pull of helping cure diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. The party of death uses the false promise of cures (remember John Edwards promise that the lame would walk?) to tempt us to weaken the sanctity of life in ever increasing increments. The goal posts are always being shifted in the wrong direction. Without a clear bright line it is easier to give into the pressure of the promise of research and the pull of donations for the biotech industry.

The Party of Death can be a depressing read at times, but Ponnuru does offer some good news: the party of death has reached its zenith on abortion. Despite NARAL’s claims, there is no pro-choice majority in America. In fact, a majority exits for those who support either a total ban on abortion or abortion with restrictions (like rape, incest, or the life of the mother). The partial-birth abortion debate, and technologies like ultrasound, has undermined the party of death’s arguments for abortion on demand. The pro-life community has slowly built up support and made incremental progress. There is much to be done, but no reason for despair.

In his final chapter, Ponnuru discuss what a post-Roe world might look like. He quickly casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that a reversal of Roe would be bad for Republicans and the pro-life cause. But he does admit that the GOP might lose some votes once the issue loses it federal and nationalized nature. He then goes on to insightfully point out what the debate over Roe is really about:

The end of Roe would not hand pro-lifers victory in all the political debates over abortion policy. It would give them the right to have those debates in the first place.

It is important to point this fact out. Roe was not only a decision with no legal foundation, but it was also a profoundly undemocratic one. It put in place a regime that no state would have chosen if the decision had been left to the democratic process. And the courts have since that time stifled debate and prevented states from having any room to set policy. As noted above, it undermines the equality that is the foundation of our democracy.

In the end, however, Ponnuru reminds us that nothing is predetermined:

Yet it is possible to progress, or regress, on all fronts. 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. That is surely what pro-lifers should work for.

In writing the Party of Death Ramesh Ponnuru has made a significant contribution to that work.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Your review is an admirable exposition. This work sounds as if it is significant.

    I might extend the argument a bit. Most of the blogs I read are Libertarian (neo-conservative) in nature. For them the Enlightenment was profound. They would reason as Mr. Ponnuru. Yet religion, Christianity, must be in the mix somehow. It is Christianity which has endowed men with those certain qualities as created beings which the author chooses to defend. The Roman church makes this Christian argument quite well.
    So my reservation is this. I prefer the author be honest in acknowledging a main fact about the current dispute. It is not between two sides of equal moral value.
    Cutting through the fog (I like your phrase) of human prevarication, it is the utopianism of secular materialism which has plagued mankind, engendering genocide on a horrific basis for almost a century. Civilization has barely survived its depradations in 1945 and 1989. Its principles are the basis for one side of this present conflict. Why should we require debate?

    Do we again allow SM’s nightmare thinking the chance to decide who lives and dies? Have we not certainly, finally, seen enough of the death, of the horror it promotes?

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