Q&A with Ramesh Ponnuru

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and the author of The Party of Death recently published by Regnery. He is a graduate of Princeton University and has covered politics for more than a decade. In addition to his work with National Review, he has written for the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, and Financial Times.

With the recent publication of his book and the debate that is sure to spring up around it, Ramesh was kind enough to agree to answer some questions vial email. What follows is the result. My questions in bold, Ramesh’s answers below.

You claim in the book that: “Everything you think you know about Roe is a lie.” What do you mean by that?

Most people believe that Roe v. Wade was a more limited decision than it was: They don’t realize that it created a right to abortion at any stage of pregnancy for any reason, which is more extreme than any other developed country’s abortion policy. Many people mistakenly believe that overturning Roe would amount to criminalizing abortion nationwide. Most people are under the impression that the country was headed toward liberal abortion laws even before Roe. That’s not true either. Finally, they think that women were dying in large numbers from illegal abortions before Roe. Again, that’s false. Even after 33 years, there are a lot of myths about Roe that haven’t really been challenged—myths that the media continue to spread. Even many pro-lifers believe some of the things I just mentioned.

Is there a dishonest component to the arguments of the “party of death” in the media, academia, and even the courts?

Bernard Nathanson has explained that when he was one of the leaders of the abortion lobby in the late 1960s, his colleagues and he made up numbers about how many illegal abortions there were and how many women were dying from them. Flash forward two decades, and you find 400 academics lying about the history of abortion in a submission to the Supreme Court. A decade after that, you find leaders of the abortion lobby lying about partial-birth abortion. Those are just a few of the examples I detail in The Party of Death.

What does polling tend to reveal about American support for abortion? Is there a pro-choice or pro-life majority?

There are pro-life majorities on some questions, pro-choice majorities on others, and ambivalence about the rest. But it’s clear that the public supports more restrictions on abortion than the courts will allow, and some polls suggest that the public is willing to prohibit the vast majority of abortions. There’s a reason the abortion lobby wants to keep this issue out of the hands of voters.

You argue that: “The Court seems to have taken us a half-step toward assisted suicide without anyone, even pro-lifers, quite realizing it.” How could this happen? Is there a real danger of moving toward euthanasia and infanticide?

The Supreme Court ruled that people have a right to turn down medical treatment for themselves, or for others if they’re too incapacitated to make the decision themselves. I think people ought to have that right, even if it runs the risk of causing the patient’s death. But the Court reasoned sloppily. It’s one thing to say that you don’t want a treatment because it’s cumbersome or painful or requires you to stay in a hospital instead of a home. It’s another to say that food and water are medical treatments that can be withdrawn. In almost all cases, the only purpose for doing that is to cause someone’s death. And the Supreme Court forced every state in the country to allow that, with pretty lax oversight.

Euthanasia has already gone further in America than most people realize, and—as I explain in the book—I think we are in the opening stages of a campaign to legitimize infanticide, at least for severely disabled or sick infants.

Why do you think so many Americans are comfortable with abortion as an option for potentially handicapped children?

It’s a misguided form of compassion, I think. We don’t want kids or their parents to suffer, and we want to eliminate disease and affliction. But because of the way abortion has changed our cultural assumptions, we let those sentiments pull us in the direction of eliminating children with diseases and afflictions.

The Democrat’s extreme position on abortion doesn’t seem to be a winning one. If you were asked to advise the Democratic Party from a political stand point what advice would you give them on this issue?

Abortion has been the issue that, more than any other, has driven a cultural transformation of the Republican and Democratic parties. It has led relatively upscale social liberals to desert the former for the latter, and many working-class social conservatives to do the reverse. That hasn’t been an advantageous trade for the Democrats. I think they could start to reverse it if they accepted some restrictions on abortion, or even just came out against taxpayer funding of it. I think they would do even better if they allowed these issues to be decided democratically rather than supported their imposition by courts.

The Democrats aren’t the only ones with problems on life issues. Why do GOP politicians who have a history of support for pro-life policies end up supporting things like embryonic stem cell research? Why can’t the Republican majority even ban human cloning? Is this a lack of will or philosophical confusion?

Opposition to embryo-destructive research is politically weaker than opposition to abortion for a lot of reasons. Pro-lifers have gained ground on abortion in part because of the widespread use of ultrasounds, which have increased sympathy for the fetus and revulsion at abortion. With research on human beings at the very earliest stages of life, we don’t have those kind of images. And the biotech industry and lobbies for people with various illnesses have gotten involved in the research debate, whereas they’re not a factor in the abortion debate. And there is also widespread confusion about the science. Pro-lifers have also made some strategic mistakes. All that said, I think Republicans are overestimating the political risks of moving against cloning, where we still have the public on our side.

How are the issues of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and Terri Schiavo related?

The fundamental question The Party of Death engages is this: Do human rights exist? Do we have certain rights, that is, simply because we are human? Or is it the case that some human beings happen to have rights and others do not? What I call the party of death believes the latter. You can make a sophisticated and almost coherent case for that view, arguing that not all human beings are persons with rights. I argue that that is the worldview that links all of these issues, that it’s wrong, and that it has very dangerous implications.

A lot of early critics have raised the issues of the death penalty and war to deflect criticism about the party of death. How do you think these issues relate to the issue in the book? Have you thought about writing your next book on these other life issues?

The kind of argument I was just talking about—about the possibility that not all human beings are persons with rights—doesn’t really get made in the debates over the war and the death penalty. So the issues are just too different for me to treat them in the same book. As for my next book: One has been enough work for a while, thanks.

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).

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