Widely recognized as one of the leading conservative minds in the country, Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of National Review, felt compelled to write a book on the cause for life after finding his own opinion shifted dramatically upon examining the issue closely.
At first glance many might think the title of his book, The Party of Death, refers solely to the Democratic Party. Not true. The Party of Death refers simply to the group of people, whether on the right or left, who support legalized abortion and other related measures (e.g. euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, etc.).
The Party of Death is not your typical pro-life apologetics book. Rather than carefully constructing a pro-life worldview using sound reason and logical arguments, the book labors to debunk the myths, lies and faulty logic that have propped up legalized abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Along the way, Ponnuru reviews the fascinating political history of legalized abortion and offers a hypothetical glimpse into the future of a post-Roe world.
Ponnuru begins by dispelling some of the common myths surrounding Roe v. Wade. Since many such myths have persisted for years, despite being demonstrably false, this seems a good place to begin. Since many myths surrounding the infamous Supreme Court decision purposefully cloud exactly what types of abortions were legalized, his primary point is that Roe v. Wade, along with its sister decision, Doe v. Bolton (handed down by the Supreme Court on the same day), effectively allowed legalized abortion on demand in the U.S. Ponnuru writes:
"So: Roe required that any ban on late-term abortion include an exception allowing abortion to protect a woman's health; Doe defined that exception so broadly that it swallowed up any possibility of a ban. How could anyone ever be prosecuted for violating a ban on late-term abortions under this rule? The 'attending physician' - in real life, very often an abortionist with a financial stake in the decision - can always say that in his medical judgment, the abortion was necessary to preserve the woman's emotional "health," especially considered in light of her 'familial' situation. Any prosecution would have to be abandoned as unconstitutional."
Other myths surrounding Roe v. Wade that Ponnuru addresses here deal with the existing state laws (in all fifty states) that prohibited abortion, the prevailing public opinion at the time Roe was decided (overwhelmingly pro-life) and whether or not the Constitution recognizes unborn persons (it makes no such distinction between the born and unborn within any relevant context).
As radical as these Supreme Court decisions are, Ponnuru points out (in subsequent chapters) that they are not radical enough for most Democrats. While the Supreme Court allowed abortion on demand, the Democrats have consistently fought for abortion to also be government and taxpayer subsidized. In fact, the Democratic Party even supports the subsidization of abortions overseas. Ponnuru writes:
"Pro-life administrations have stipulated that no international family-planning funds will go to organizations that perform abortions or advocate the legalization of abortion overseas. Pro-choice groups have protested bitterly. In December 2005, Democrats even held up a bill to combat the sexual trafficking of women and children in order to get funds flowing to pro-abortion groups."
Days after taking office, President Obama overturned these commonsensical laws. Thus, in a time of record national debt and deficit-spending, American taxpayers subsidize the international abortion industry.
In another chapter, Ponnuru tackles the commonly spread liberal myth that legalized abortion dramatically reduces the crime rate. Summarizing the argument made famous in Levitt and Dubner's bestseller, Freakonomics, "Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime." This argument, however, does not stand up to close inspection. Ponnuru writes:
"If Levitt's theory were correct, one would expect murder rates to have dropped among younger teens before it dropped among older teens...
...this is the reverse of what happened. Between 1983 and 1993, murder rates went down among people older than twenty-five and went up among those younger. "The first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history." The murder rate among the over-twenty-five set started falling in 1981. It started to go back up only when the set started including people born after Roe."
Other chapters on abortion deal with the brutal practice of partial birth abortion and the Democrats' attempts to keep the practice legal at all costs, debating when a human being becomes a "person," and abortion advocates attempts to rewrite American history, portraying abortion as a common practice in colonial America.
In the second section of the book, Ponnuru deals with the other major practice the "Party of Death" is pushing on America: euthanasia. Published just a year after the travails of Terri Schiavo and the highly explosive political debate over her fate, The Party of Death uses her case to illustrate euthanasia's dangers and to craft an intelligent pro-life response to it. First, Ponnuru acknowledges that pro-lifers lost a lot of ground during this high-profile case. Specifically, he believes pro-lifers "barely made the principled argument against euthanasia." He writes:
"For understandable political and legal reasons, those who wanted to keep feeding Terri emphasized that it was not clear that she was in a "persistent vegetative state." But in so doing, they let the notion that it is acceptable for people who are in that state to be starved to death slide right by. It made tactical sense to question whether Mrs. Schiavo really would have wanted to die this way. But in asking it, pro-lifers failed to challenge the notion that it is acceptable to kill those who wish to be killed."
After acknowledging the pro-life movement's shortcomings during this debate, Ponnuru proceeds to correct the errors. He makes it clear that there is a "perfectly rational case against euthanasia" starting with "the idea that human beings have inherent worth and dignity, and therefore are equal in fundamental rights, simply by virtue of being human." He continues:
"The right to life has to be among these rights, which means that it cannot depend on race, or age, or health, or sex. It cannot depend even on whether the person who has it wants it: He doesn't cease to be a human being with the full complement of rights simply because he wants to die. (It is because the right is intrinsic to human beings that it is also inalienable, as our Founders, who were not theocrats, put it.)"
The case for euthanasia, however, "almost inescapably rests on what might be described as a kind of irrational spirituality." This brings us to dualism, the philosophy abortion and euthanasia are forced to employ. Dualism is the concept that the "person" is separate from the physical body. This philosophy holds that the person is "the ghost in the machine" or the "tune in the music box." Ponnuru believes this dualism is "untenable," however, when examined through the lens of "everyday experience." Earlier in the book, Ponnuru addresses this philosophic fallacy:
"We sense and perceive, which are clearly bodily actions, but also engage in conceptual thinking, which cannot be reduced to bodily actions; and it is clearly the same subject who does both types of things. The dualist who utters his idea refutes it in the act of voicing it. We are (among other things) our bodies."
So it is, in a strange twist, that we find the pro-life argument rests on physical and scientific truths, while abortion and euthanasia advocates are forced to depend on a quasi-spiritual philosophy to defend their practices. Ultimately, Ponnuru takes a nuanced but principled stance, stating that there is a difference between taking actions that purposefully end life and not doing everything one can to prolong life.
Ponnuru dedicates other chapters in the book to related topics, including embryonic stem cell research, the anti-life bias found in the media, and even that strangest of breeds, the pro-life Democrat. Ponnuru concludes with a brief, but riveting, political history of abortion, showing why pro-choice approval peaked in public opinion in the early 90's and why it has been in decline ever since. In the final chapter, Ponnuru briefly describes the challenges that await the pro-life movement once Roe v. Wade is overturned, a very real possibility in his estimation.
Ultimately, The Party of Death does not build an airtight case for the sanctity of life, but that does not seem to have been its purpose. Rather, Ponnuru's goal was to debunk and demystify the many misleading and deceptive arguments of abortion and euthanasia advocates. On this level, the book largely succeeds. By carefully discrediting and exposing these myths, lies, and disingenuous arguments, Ponnuru makes an important contribution to pro-life literature; a book that many conservatives would find enlightening and helpful in this most important of crusades.