When lives are expendable

Leading American journalist Ramesh Ponnuru analyses the current state of the right to life in politics, universities, the courts, and the press in this exclusive interview.
Matthew Mehan | Apr 25 2006 | comment  




The abortion issue has been the elephant in the living room for the last 30 years of public discourse in the United States.  In his riveting new book released this week, "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life", Ramesh Ponnuru deals with right to life issues that have kicked up blinding ethical clouds in the press, including Terri Schiavo, stem cell research, freedom of conscience for politicians, Supreme Court nominee battles, and especially the abortion debate. Mr Ponnuru is a senior editor for the journal National Review and often appears on US current affairs programs.

MercatorNet: For a start, "The Party of Death"?  What or who makes up this party?
 

Ramesh PonnuruPonnuru: The "party of death" refers to those forces in our politics and culture that seek to undermine the right to life. The phrase is adapted from Ronald Dworkin, the liberal legal philosopher. He starts his book in defence of abortion and euthanasia by acknowledging straightforwardly that they are "choices for death. "

The core members of the party of death are those who, like Dworkin, explicitly deny that all human beings are equal in having a right to life and who propose the creation of a category of "human non-persons" who can be treated as expendable. The party's vanguard consists of people such as Princeton professor Peter Singer, who thinks that infants belong in that category. The party of death also has unwitting allies. They support parts of its agenda without realising that they are helping to devalue human life across the board.

MercatorNet: Why write this book now?

Ponnuru: There hasn't been a pro-life book for a general audience in more than 20 years. A lot has happened since then. Stem cells have become a topic of debate, for example. American politics has become more polarised around abortion. End-of-life issues have become more prominent. Under the circumstances, I thought it was worth trying to explain why these issues are connected and how they have become more and more central to our politics.
 
MercatorNet: If this is a "pro-life book" then do you agree with the terms for political debate in the US?  Are "pro-life" and "pro-choice" the proper terms?

Ponnuru: These terms are imperfect, especially "pro-choice" — nobody would ever describe the National Rifle Association as "pro-choice on guns" — but they are where you have to start in making an argument.

MercatorNet:
The first part of your book is a deconstruction of the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which held women had a right to privacy that thus permitted abortion.  Some argue that this case is no longer the central concern in the abortion debate in the US.  So why showcase Roe v. Wade if you are trying to address today's debate with stem cells and euthanasia and the like?

Ponnuru: Roe v. Wade and its progeny are the central political issue when it comes to abortion. The courts are the principal obstacle to an abortion policy that is more just, more protective of life, and more democratic. And by enshrining an extreme form of "abortion rights" as a supposedly fundamental principle of our Constitution, the Supreme Court did a great deal to distort our understanding of stem cells and euthanasia. If not for Roe, I doubt the US would have ended up a country that cannot even bring itself to restrict cloning.

MercatorNet: How so?

Ponnuru: Without Roe, some states might have decided to allow abortion on the theory that abortion, while bad, was in some cases the least bad outcome of a problematic pregnancy, but, as a nation, we would not have taken the view that human beings in the earliest stages of life had no moral or legal standing and that we had a right to do with them whatever we wanted. That premise pops up again and again in debates over embryo-killing research, restrictions on which are sometimes said to be unconstitutional.

MercatorNet: In the chapter "The Politics of Personhood", you write that the central issue for the party of death is not the rights of women over their bodies.   Was this never the issue for the party of death?  If not, then what is?

Ponnuru: Let's imagine someone who takes the view that the human embryo is a living human being with rights, but that women have a right to control their own bodies that justifies their ability to abort that embryo. You would expect that person to oppose embryo-destructive research since no woman's body is involved in that question. But almost nobody actually takes that view. They support abortion because they do not believe embryonic and foetal lives have moral worth, not because they place a high value on women's bodily autonomy. Indeed, they think that it's an issue of women's bodily autonomy because they have already decided that the foetus does not have the same right to life that you and I do.

MercatorNet: "Moral worth"?  Is that the same as the "sanctity of life"?  Why aren't these ruled out as religious arguments?

Ponnuru: A five-year-old has the same right to life that a six-year-old does. To make that argument, I don't need to invoke any religious authority: I just need to be able to explain why the five-year-old and the six-year-old do not differ in any way that could rationally justify recognising the right to life of one but not the other. I argue, in the book, that human beings in the embryonic stage of development don't differ from five and six-year-olds in any way that could justify their killing. (Neither do people in a persistent vegetative state.) That argument doesn't depend on religious premises either.

MercatorNet: Changing tack, you seem to make the case that the abortion debate has not been a forthright one. Why do you think that is and how has this lack of honesty changed the debate?

Ponnuru: Before Roe was decided, supporters of abortion dissembled about the frequency of illegal abortions, the frequency of maternal deaths from illegal abortions, and the history of abortion law. Since Roe, they have dissembled about how far-reaching the Supreme Court's decisions have really been, about the frequency and reasons for partial-birth abortion, and many other matters. It is possible to make an honest defence of abortion. But in our country, the social and political success of the movement to defend abortion has depended on lies.

MercatorNet: Do you think the pro-choice movement would have failed if the party of death had been honest in the courts?

Ponnuru: The notion that the Constitution protects abortion can be seen as a kind of higher lie itself. A certain amount of deception and self-deception was necessary even in the courts.
 
MercatorNet: Obviously this book will cause a stir in pro-choice circles.  You mention in thanks at the close of the book a number of pro-life organisations and leaders, saying that they may not agree with everything in "The Party of Death".  Do you think this book will cause any controversy or disagreement in pro-life circles?

Ponnuru: Some pro-lifers will disagree with aspects of the book. There has been a long-running debate among pro-lifers about the wisdom of trying to move forward incrementally. I'm firmly in the incrementalist camp, and that will probably be the biggest concern for some pro-lifers. But I hope that those pro-lifers will find most of the book to be valuable.

MercatorNet:
Speaking of those with whom one disagrees, in your book, the Democratic party is shown to have been taken over by the party of death, which has caused great harm to the party's popularity, not to mention moral standing with respect to abortion.   Besides your stated goal to have more just laws that protect life, do I detect a desire on your part to revitalise the two-party system by freeing the Democrats from the party of death?  Is this book designed to foment a purge in the Democratic party?

Ponnuru: One of the arguments I make in the book is that the Democratic Party has made a terrible mistake, even from the standpoint of self-interest, by letting itself be so thoroughly dominated by the party of death. I am not calling for the Democrats to purge pro-choicers; it would be hard for the party to purge a majority of its members. I do think it should be more open to pro-lifers, accept some restrictions on abortion, and be willing to submit to a democratic resolution of the issue.

MercatorNet: Where in the future do you see the most opposition to the pro-life cause?  Will it be the courts? The universities? Abortion advocacy groups themselves? Law journals and legal scholars such as Ronald Dworkin? 

Ponnuru:
The opposition comes from all of the institutions you mention, but it's the courts and the legal culture that are the biggest problems. Pro-choice academics and feminists can be beaten democratically, if we get the chance.

MercatorNet:
Finally, where do you see the most encouraging sign of the turning of the tide, as one of your chapters calls it?

Ponnuru: One of the most heartening developments in the abortion issue has been the increasingly pro-life stance that young people are taking.

Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.

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