National Review contributor Ramesh Ponnuru has just published his first book, The Party of Death. The Party of Death consists of politicians (not necessarily, but mostly, Democrats), the media and the courts. In witty and concise fashion, Ponnuru seeks to explain and defend the pro-life side of the cultural debate about issues like abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research, draw back the vale of euphemisms currently surrounding them and examine the political effects of Roe v. Wade and the likely results if it should be overturned.
Ponnuru begins by exposing many of the lies and misconceptions that surround Roe v. Wade. It is common for people to think that Roe allows abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy and restricts them thereafter. Indeed, the Roe opinion itself purports to do so. However, Roe allows for exceptions in the latter 2 trimesters for the health of the mother. In Roe's little known but very important companion case, Doe v. Bolton, the Court then proceeds to define the health of the mother so widely the result is the most radical abortion law of any nation on the planet: abortions at any time for any reason. Ponnuru argues that this misconception (that Roe allows only first trimester abortions), fostered by the pro-choice movement, the media, and pollsters, is the decisive factor when polls show nearly two thirds of the public support the Roe v. Wade decision. Another common error in regard to Roe v. Wade is the sentiment that its reversal would ban all abortions. But this would not be the case - the issue would merely be relegated back to the state legislatures, where it was before Roe swept aside all existing abortion laws and restrictions in 1973.
Ponnuru then addresses the central question itself: the right to life. He argues that a human embryo, far from being a "clump of cells" or mere "protoplasm", is simply a human being at the earliest stage of development. Pro-choicers have sometimes argued that an embryo isn't like a "real" human being because it doesn't look like us: no fingers, no toes, no discernible human features. But, again, an embryo is a human at the earliest stage of development: we all looked like that at that age. The question, then, is whether every human being is to be afforded the right to life. There is no difference in kind whether an embryo a few days old is destroyed, or a fetus 6 months old, or a newborn baby.
The pro-choicer must eventually argue that there is such a thing as a human being which is not also a person. Just being a living and functioning member of the species homo sapiens will not be enough. Personhood will have to be defined as having consciousness and some knowledge of one's own being. But this will lead us down a very thorny path. The author shows that by pro-choicers' own logic, it is very hard to admit a right to abortion without also positing a right to infanticide. For if a fetus 6 or 8 months old can be destroyed, why should parents not be allowed to destroy their newborn child? The newborn infant will not be a "person" by this definition either. Neither will the disabled and infirm. Indeed, we will be forced to come up with a definition of whose life is worth living and whose is not. If someone loses their consciousness, but is not dead, are we allowed to kill them? Is a person like Terri Schiavo, whose brain could perform all the functions necessary to live and who lacked only the ability to feed herself, dispensable?
Once we've established that some human beings are not persons and therefore have no right to live, why not go a step further? The severely handicapped and disabled will never have the quality of life an average person does. In the unborn and infants, the problem can be dealt with quickly - those who are not up to standard can be liquidated. For example, Down-syndrome cases have declined in the U.S. in recent years - because 75% - 80% of cases are detected prenatally and abortions are performed. Infanticide because of disability has already gained acceptance in Europe (Ponnuru says that 8% of infant deaths in the Netherlands are due to doctor-performed infanticide - and parental consent is not required) and is creeping in America. Those who perform and argue in favor of such policies congratulate themselves on how compassionate they are in deciding that the unfit should never be allowed to live at all. It was thought that the dogma of eugenics had died in the ashes of Nazi Germany. Not so.
The inherent dignity and worth of every human is also belied by embryonic stem-cell research. The exciting promise of stem cell research is the cure for a range of diseases. Stem cells, theoretically, could be used to grow a tissue culture matching any cell of the human body - for instance, generating new neurons to inject into Alzheimer's patients to cure their affliction. The potential of this research has generated wild exaggerations - like the media repeatedly referring to "magic cures" or Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards telling an audience that "Christopher Reeve would get up out of his chair and walk" if he and John Kerry were elected. One problem with these claims is that they're overblown - the research probably will not lead to a cure for Alzheimer's. Another is that in order to get these supposed miracle cures, a human embryo has to be created and destroyed.
Again, every human embryo, from the moment a sperm cell and an egg cell join, is a unique member of the human species at the earliest stage of development. There is no other definition for it. It possesses its own DNA and a distinctive genetic makeup that will allow it to grow into an adult human being. For embryonic stem-cell research to work, a few skin cells from a person would be taken and implanted into an embryo. The process rips the embryo apart and destroys the unique human it was to create a tissue culture matching the skin cell donor's own DNA. The skin cell donor has destroyed another member of its species to produce a clone of himself - and yes, clone is the correct word. This is where euphemisms come in. The public reacts very negatively to the term "cloning" and so its advocates try alternatives - "therapeutic cloning" or, to make sure no one knows what he's talking about, "somatic nuclear cell transfer". The advocate must rely on obfuscation or deception to pursue his goals.
It is hard to truly gauge the public's stance on abortion and other life issues - Ponnuru shows that the results of such polls are highly dependent on the language used by the pollsters. As mentioned earlier, a generic "Do you support the Roe v. Wade decision" question will generate a roughly two thirds majority in favor. But polls also show that a majority of Americans oppose abortion after the first trimester and support restrictions like parental notification. Likewise, a poll question such as "Do you support stem-cell research that may lead to a cure for Alzheimer's?" will generate strong positive support. But a question that makes clear an embryo is destroyed in the research usually finds opposition. The key for pro-lifers is to educate the public as best they can while not taking any steps that frighten them.
Abortion has been the key to unlocking these other evils - infanticide, the devaluation of human life, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on. Roe v. Wade, and the public's subsequent acceptance of abortion, put us on a slippery slope and we've been sliding ever since. Ponnuru believes that incremental steps are necessary to finally win the battle for the pro-life side. He argues that pro-lifers were on the defensive from Roe v. Wade until the early 90's. Until that point, the pro-life movement's overriding goal had been a Constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to life from the moment of conception. But that was a goal the public did not support and that was not attainable. With the rise of the partial-birth abortion issue in the mid-90's, a tactical shift was under way. Pursuing smaller goals like restrictions on abortion, instead of an all-or-nothing ban, would advance the movement's goals more quickly and efficiently - and with the public's support.
The Holy Grail of the incremental strategy, of course, is the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Once that is accomplished, the battle will move back to the states (where it never should have left, but more on that to follow). The incremental strategy will be accomplished most readily at the state level. If a state enacts a ban on abortion after the 15th week, for instance, pro-lifers might then call for a ban after the 14th week, and so on. The incremental shift, Ponnuru hopes, will also signal a cultural shift. As abortion becomes more restricted and less common, respect for human life will be restored. And if that happens, the problems of infanticide, euthanasia, embryo-destructive research, etc. will also be reduced. And then the Party of Death will finally be defeated.
Ramesh Ponnuru has produced a tour de force in favor of the pro-life movement. The book makes light and easy reading for such a serious subject, while being clever and sharp. I am glad that Ponnuru eschews religious arguments in favor of cool logic. If one is engaged in a debate about these issues, one is likely enough to be dismissed as some sort of religious fanatic without giving explicit fodder to one's opponent. It is possible to be pro-life without being religious and vice versa, and it is a concern better left on the sidelines here. Conversely, I am disappointed that Ponnuru did not focus more on the pro-choice movement's propensity to sidestep the democratic process by appealing to the courts. The abortion issue is one that should be decided by the people via their elected representatives, and as an issue not mentioned in the Constitution should be left to the states. Ponnuru discusses the courts and some of their decisions, obviously. Yet he does not point out, for instance, how Planned Parenthood and their ilk went shopping for plaintiffs and friendly courts to challenge laws they wanted struck down, in order to enact their agenda via judicial decree. Also, in discussing stem-cell research, Ponnuru mentions alternatives like adult stem-cells and cord-blood cells, which have yielded medical treatments for decades, but does not point out that embryonic stem-cell research has yet to generate any successful treatment or remedy (let alone miracle cures). These minor objections aside, this book gets my highest recommendation. Read it to inform and entertain yourself.