April 24, 2006,
"The party of death started with abortion, but its sickle has gone from threatening the unborn, to the elderly, to the disabled; it has swept from the maternity ward to the cloning laboratory to a generalized disregard for 'inconvenient' human life."
So begins The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, by National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru.
Don't let the title or opening get you too down Ramesh has optimistic things to say, too. In a two-part interview, he talked to colleague NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about some of what he has to say in Party of Death about the politics, the courts, and the culture and our very lives.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Ramesh! You know I love you but, man, I'm just a few pages into your book and you're giving HILLARY CLINTON ADVICE ON HOW SHE COULD BECOME PRESIDENT. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
Ramesh Ponnuru: Well, in my defense, I wasn't awake. It's a dream I had about how Hillary Clinton really could take a few steps toward pro-lifers while staying consistent with her history. I note in the book that she could become president if she took those steps. At the risk of further heresy, I'd consider voting for her myself under those circumstances.
Lopez: You make clear in the book that the "party of death" in the title is not the Democratic party. Plenty of Republicans are members. But the Dems have embraced it with open arms, so aren't they kinda sorta the party of death, or its main political manifestation?
Ponnuru: One of the stories the book tells is how abortion transformed the Democratic party from a party primarily concerned about protecting the weak to one that is more avid about defending the alleged rights of the strong. Pro-life Democrats have resisted this transformation, but it is certainly true that the Democratic party has become the party of unrestricted abortion, lethal research on human embryos, and euthanasia. The way I put it is that the party of death has largely taken over the Democratic party and has an outpost in the Republican party too.
Lopez: What do you say to people who say that conservatives are the "party of death," since they have supported the death penalty and the Iraq war?
Ponnuru: I get that a lot from people who haven't read the book. The most articulate defenders of abortion, some types of euthanasia, infanticide, and lethal embryo research argue for those things on the theory that the human beings they kill are not persons. My book argues against that theory and goes into the chilling implications of that view.
Articulate defenders of the death penalty and the Iraq war make very different arguments. They do not, that is, say that death-row inmates and Iraqi insurgents are "human non-persons." Thus the death penalty and the war raise very different issues. This is not to say that the moral issues raised by the war and the death penalty are not serious. (I think the moral issues raised by the death penalty are sufficiently serious that I oppose it.) It is only to say that they are mostly distinct from the ones that come up in this book.
Lopez: Did abortion decrease during the Clinton years and has it increased during the Bush years?
Ponnuru:During the 2004 campaign, when it became clear that some voters with pro-life inclinations were up for grabs, some liberals made this claim. In fact, abortion started to decline in 1990 and has continued to decline since then. Presidents haven't had much to do with it one way or the other. President Clinton didn't invent ultrasounds.
Lopez: Does Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania suggest that the Dems don't want to be the actual party of death? Does the Democratic party have to abort abortion or do something fundamentally different on the life issues to survive? Will they?
Ponnuru:The Casey candidacy is an encouraging sign that the Democrats realize that, as one party strategist put it, they "can't just be the party of death." I do think the Democrats have to do something more than just revamp their rhetoric on abortion. Coming out against tax-funded abortions, or being willing to see Roe modified to allow bans on third-trimester abortions, would be steps in the right direction.
Lopez: Members of the party of death increasingly argue that if pro-lifers really cared about reducing abortion, they would more fully embrace contraception, and not be so hung up on abstinence, for instance. Do they have a point?
Ponnuru:Most pro-lifers don't, I think, oppose contraception. Whether promoting contraception or abstinence in school is the best way to reduce abortions is an empirical question on which the jury is still out. But it is clear that if want to reduce abortion, getting rid of taxpayer funding for abortion, enacting parental-consent and informed-consent laws, and restricting third-trimester abortions are ways to do that and the party of death opposes those steps.
Lopez: Would you excommunicate Arlen Specters from the GOP if you were Ken Mehlman, lest Republicans become cozier with death as their politics?
Ponnuru:Pro-lifers, among others, were right to try to beat Specter in the primary. I think the Republican party organization spent too many resources saving Specter's campaign. But you can't blame the party for supporting its incumbents. That's what parties do. Expecting otherwise is like expecting someone to hold a press conference denouncing his wife.
Lopez: Could/should a "pro-choicer" ever be the Republicans' presidential nominee? I'm thinking about Rudy here.
Ponnuru:If Roe v. Wade were gone, and abortion were primarily a matter for state legislatures, it would be easier for pro-lifers to tolerate someone on the ticket who didn't share their views. But it's hard to see a candidate supporting abortion and opposing Roe.
Lopez: After Hillary, Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, is the second presidential hopeful you mention in your book though interestingly not by name. You sending a subtle message?
Lopez:You Romney supporters sure are touchy! Romney had noted that the Supreme Court left states with little authority to set their own abortion policy, and the Boston Globe said falsely that he was wrong. The Globe fell for a widespread error about Roe. I wanted to explain that error, not so much to defend Romney. If I got into the business of defending every Republican politician whose views about abortion were distorted, I would have had to add at least another chapter.
Lopez: You say that there is neither a pro-life nor pro-choice majority. So is it all up for grabs?
Ponnuru:There are majorities on certain questions. There is a pro-life majority on second-trimester and third-trimester abortions. There is a pro-choice majority on abortions resulting from rape, incest, threats to the mother's life, and severe fetal disability. For the vast majority of abortions elective first-trimester abortions there is ambivalence, and much depends on how pro-lifers and pro-choicers frame the issue and who prevails politically.
TOMORROW: Ramesh Ponnuru talks about his days as a pro-choicer, Peter Singer, the Supreme Court, Ronald Reagan, and more.