A review of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, by Ramesh Ponnuru
hat kind of truth must a journalist know, and what should he tell? For a long time, in America at least, the answers to these questions have been, respectively, facts and stories. The journalist’s first responsibility is to get the facts straight—who? what? when? where? how?—and the second is to arrange them in a way that captures the attention of the reading public. Practicing journalists know that much art or craft goes into gathering the facts and, since facts rarely speak for themselves, into framing the story.
Others, however, have asked even more of journalists if they are to inform a democratic public properly. At least since Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), journalists have been urged to supplement their reporting with statistical knowledge from social science, just as interviews with experts are part of the modern journalist’s stock-in-trade. As for the art of telling stories, it has always tempted able writers in the press toward literature or at least toward essay writing, and the occasional success of a few in this regard is probably responsible for a multitude of lesser efforts by those who might better stick to the facts.
In The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, Ramesh Ponnuru brings to his journalism yet another kind of knowledge: a clear and precise understanding of the philosophical ethics of his subject, informed by a grasp of the relevant scientific knowledge. His subject is abortion, and the emerging, related issues of euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research. Ponnuru makes his position clear at the outset: he is “pro-life,” though he once accepted the legitimacy of abortion; even after he came to oppose abortion, he long rejected the “pro-life” label. His pro-life stance, he says, is not bias or opinion or “values.” It is acknowledgment of moral truth. The book’s implicit premise is that the conviction of abortion’s wrongness allows one better to see the facts about abortion politics in America, from its treatment in court, to its effect on partisan elections, to its coverage in the press. With the facts clear, a better story can be told and public opinion, one presumes, will be better formed.
Ponnuru’s facts are mostly well-known within the pro-life movement, but here they are assembled and unfolded with a good journalist’s knack for a story, scruple for precise statement, and care in documenting sources. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that established abortion as a constitutional right, in practice permitted abortion during the entire span of a pregnancy, not only during the first trimester, as the lead opinion seems to claim and as numerous journalists who know better typically assert. Proof is in the liberal “health of the mother” exception to even late-term restrictions demanded by Roe‘s companion case; in the practice of the Court striking numerous legislated limits in the decade or two after Roe; and in the Court’s own abandonment of the trimester framework in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.
The “mythology” that Roe only protected early abortions is critical to explaining its political popularity, for Americans have consistently opposed late-term abortions in polls over the last several decades. Abortion rights advocates give estimates of pre-Roe illegal abortions, and deaths caused by such abortions, using figures that date from the 1930s, before penicillin, and are almost certainly inflated. Similarly, they deliberately understate the number of such abortions each year. Recent headline-grabbing studies purporting to link the availability of abortion with reduction in crime rates, like the book Freakonomics, are riddled with erroneous assumptions and overlooked relationships. A brief submitted to the Supreme Court in the late 1980s and again in the early 1990s by prominent historians at once influenced the debate and contradicted important findings in several signatories’ own published research. Sometimes Ponnuru establishes his revised facts with sources, sometimes he effectively reasons through the alternative argument. For example, he refutes the assertion in the historians’ brief that 19th-century anti-abortion laws did not intend to protect the fetus as a human life, but instead only to protect women from a dangerous procedure or newly professionalized medicine against amateur competition. Ponnuru infers the law’s true purpose by singling out the procedure from which women were to be “protected”: not all surgeries, only abortion.
Ponnuru’s argument for the sanctity of life is straightforward. All human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth by virtue of being human. As a result they all possess certain fundamental rights. These rights, which include the right not to be killed, cannot depend on particular qualities that some human beings have and others do not. They cannot depend on race, or age, or sex; nor can they depend on stage of development or condition of dependency. Add to this the findings of modern biology that the human organism is genetically complete upon conception and capable of self-organizing biological development in a suitable environment, and the argument against abortion (and the killing of human embryos for purposes of stem-cell research) is clear.
To the objection that the personhood (which the law protects) is separate from biology, Ponnuru replies that this distinction supposes an “untenable” dualism that “contradicts everyday experience”: “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.” To the claim that personhood and its attendant rights depend on mental activity or some other human capacity, he replies that “it is impossible to identify, without arbitrariness, the minimum level one must have to enjoy rights.” There is nothing specifically religious about this argument, any more than there was about Lincoln’s argument against slavery. Rather it is a philosophic case for equal human rights. On the other side is an argument for fundamental inequality, however egalitarian abortion rights advocates think themselves. To limit the right to life at its beginning or its end is to make “choices for death.” This puts it provocatively, to be sure, but also precisely, as acknowledged by Ronald Dworkin, a philosopher among such advocates. Hence, writes Ponnuru, the book’s title.
As with abortion, Ponnuru shines the light of his logic on the politics surrounding stem-cell research and euthanasia. He acknowledges not only moral questions specific to each issue (for example, the question of “discarded embryos” conceived in test tubes but not implanted in a mother’s womb) but also the different state of public opinion, less clearly formed than on abortion and less supportive of the right to life. As with confusion over the meaning of Roe, Ponnuru attributes the drift of public opinion partly to his fellow journalists, whom he calls “scribes of the party of death.” Despite the harsh moniker, Ponnuru’s reporting here is restrained, perhaps because he knows he is writing for a skeptical public. For example, in discussing the Terri Schiavo case, he writes with sadness that “most Americans support[ed] the deliberate killing of an innocent woman” by denying her nutrition and hydration when she was not otherwise in the course of dying. Not least of the media’s confusions in this instance was its portrayal of the opposition as equipped only with religious, rather than ethical, arguments.
The “party” of the title includes others in the intelligentsia besides the media, among them members of the medical community, much of the bench, much of the research academy, and biotech entrepreneurs. But Ponnuru has in mind especially the Democratic Party, and most especially its leadership. Chilling to any pro-lifer are the former pro-life pronouncements of Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, Richard Durbin, even Ted Kennedy, that Ponnuru has gathered. How weak is moral insight against the pull of political ambition! The shunning of the remaining pro-life Democrats within the party is a practice he thinks particularly foolish, for he observes that increasing ideological conformity among Democrats on the abortion question has coincided with the decline of that party’s power. In fact, he begins the book by imagining a scenario in which Hillary Clinton calls for serious restrictions on abortion—and thereby wins the presidency.
While Ponnuru calls himself pro-life, he does not call the Republicans the “party of life.” He notes that they have sympathizers with the “party of death” in their ranks, but does not pursue the story. (He could have asked, for instance, why Republican appointees provided the margin of victory in both major abortion cases, Roe and Casey.) Moreover, although his philosophical analysis nicely shows what is logically inegalitarian about abortion rights, he doesn’t ask what makes the commitment to them so central to people whose politics in other respects demand the spread of equality, and indeed sometimes present abortion as an equal right. Surely some passions or interests must be at work for logic to be so easily silenced. He isn’t suggesting mere malevolence, is he? Nor, again, does he wonder why Republicans, otherwise at ease with many forms of inequality, solidly embrace an egalitarian right to life—or wonder whether the embrace is as steady as it purports to be.
Despite its cover endorsements by prominent conservative talk-show hosts and best-selling authors, Ramesh Ponnuru’s Party of Death is an impressive and serious work of journalism. It is also yet another mark of the return of an openly partisan press to America. This is something not altogether to be lamented—it seems preferable to a false objectivity oblivious to its own partisanship—and perhaps even to be expected as our polity returns from 20th-century corporatist temptations to something like the laissez-faire system of the late 19th. Still, there is something ominous about the title, justified by moral philosophy, perhaps, but admittedly taken from the phrase of a Democratic operative describing how he fears his party now appears. Can we really expect our constitutional arrangements to thrive if our two parties differ as much from one another as life and death? Do we think they really do? And are these questions beyond what a healthy democracy can expect even its best journalists to address?