Books by Ponnuru, Ramesh

Ponnuru, Ramesh. The Party of Death. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-59698-004-4.
One party government is not a pretty thing. Just as competition in the marketplace reins in the excesses of would-be commercial predators (while monopoly encourages them to do their worst), long-term political dominance by a single party inevitably leads to corruption, disconnection of the ruling elites from their constituents, and unsustainable policy decisions which are destructive in the long term; this is precisely what has eventually precipitated the collapse of most empires. In recent years the federal government of the United States has been dominated by the Republican party, with all three branches of government and both houses of the congress in Republican hands. Chapter 18 of this fact-packed book cites a statistic which provides a stunning insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the decline of the Democratic party. In 1978, Democrats held 292 seats in the House of Representatives: an overwhelming super-majority of more than two thirds. Of these Democrats, 125, more than 40%, were identified as “pro-life”—opposed to abortion on demand and federal funding of abortion. But by 2004, only 35 Democrats in the House were identified as pro-life: fewer than 18%, and the total number of Democrats had shrunk to only 203, a minority of less than 47%. It is striking to observe that over a period of 26 years the number of pro-life Democrats has dropped by 90, almost identical to the party's total loss of 89 seats.

Now, the Democratic decline is more complicated than any single issue, but as the author documents, the Democratic activist base and large financial contributors are far more radical on issues of human life: unrestricted and subsidised abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research which destroys human embryos, and human cloning for therapeutic purposes, than the American public at large. (The often deceptive questions used to manipulate the results of public opinion polls and the way they are spun in the overwhelmingly pro-abortion legacy media are discussed at length.) The activists and moneybags make the Democratic party a hostile environment for pro-life politicians and has, over the decades, selected them out, applying an often explicit litmus test to potential candidates, who are not allowed to deviate from absolutist positions. Their adherence to views not shared by most voters then makes them vulnerable in the general election.

Apart from the political consequences, the author examines the curious flirtation of the American left with death in all its forms—a strange alliance for a political philosophy which traditionally stressed protecting the weak and vulnerable: in the words of Hubert Humphrey (who was pro-life), “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” (p. 131).

The author argues against the panoply of pro-death policies exclusively from a human rights standpoint. Religion is not mentioned except to refute the claim that pro-life policies are an attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on a secular society. The human rights argument could not be simpler to grasp: if you believe that human beings have inherent, unalienable rights, simply by being human, then what human right could conceivably be more fundamental than the right not to be killed. If one accepts this (and the paucity of explicitly pro-murder voters would seem to indicate the view is broadly shared), then the only way one can embrace policies which permit the destruction of a living human organism is to define criteria which distinguish a “person” who cannot be killed, from those who are not persons and therefore can. Thus one hears the human embryo or fetus (which has the potential of developing into an adult human) described as a “potential human”, and medical patients in a persistent vegetative state as having no personhood. Professor Peter Singer, bioethicist at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University argues (p. 176), “[T]he concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”

But the problem with drawing lines that divide unarguably living human beings into classes of persons and nonpersons is that the distinctions are rarely clear-cut. If a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is a nonperson, then what changes on the first day of the fourth month to confer personhood on the continuously developing baby? Why not five months, or six? And if a woman in the U.S. has a constitutionally protected right to have her child killed right up until the very last part of its body emerges from the birth canal (as is, in fact, the regime in effect today in the United States, notwithstanding media dissimulation of this reality), then what's so different about killing a newborn baby if, for example, it was found to have a birth defect which was not detected in utero. Professor Singer has no problem with this at all; he enumerates a variety of prerequisites for personhood: “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”, and then concludes “Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

It's tempting to dismiss Singer as another of the many intellectual Looney Tunes which decorate the American academy, but Ponnuru defends him for having the intellectual integrity to follow the premises he shares with many absolutists on these issues all the way to their logical conclusions, which lead Singer to conclude (p. 186), “[d]uring the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse…. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” Doesn't that sound like a wonderful world, especially for those of us who expect to live out our declining years as that brave new era dawns, at least for those suitably qualified “persons” permitted to live long enough to get there?

Many contend that such worries are simply “the old slippery slope argument”, thinking that settles the matter. But the problem is that the old slippery slope argument is often right, and in this case there is substantial evidence that it very much applies. The enlightened Dutch seem to have slid further and faster than others in the West, permitting both assisted suicide for the ill and euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants at the parents' request—in theory. In fact, it is estimated that five percent of of all deaths in The Netherlands are the result of euthanasia by doctors without request (which is nominally illegal), and that five percent of infanticide occurs without the request or consent of the parents, and it is seldom noted in the media that the guidelines which permit these “infanticides” actually apply to children up to the age of twelve. Perhaps that's why the Dutch are so polite—young hellions run the risk not only of a paddling but also of “post-natal abortion”. The literally murderous combination of an aging population supported by a shrinking number of working-age people, state-sanctioned euthanasia, and socialised medicine is fearful to contemplate.

These are difficult issues, and the political arena has become so polarised into camps of extremists on both sides that rational discussion and compromise seem almost impossible. This book, while taking a pro-life perspective, eschews rhetoric in favour of rational argumentation grounded in the principles of human rights which date to the Enlightenment. One advantage of applying human rights to all humans is that it's simple and easy to understand. History is rich in examples which show that once a society starts sorting people into persons and nonpersons, things generally start to go South pretty rapidly. Like it or not, these are issues which modern society is going to have to face: advances in medical technologies create situations that call for judgements people never had to make before. For those who haven't adopted one extreme position or another, and are inclined to let the messy democratic process of decision making sort this out, ideally leaving as much discretion as possible to the individuals involved, as opposed to absolutist “rights” discovered in constitutional law and imposed by judicial diktat, this unsettling book is a valuable contribution to the debate. Democratic party stalwarts are unlikely in the extreme to read it, but they ignore this message at their peril.

The book is not very well-edited. There are a number of typographical errors and on two occasions (pp.  94 and 145), the author's interpolations in the middle of extended quotations are set as if they were part of the quotation. It is well documented; there are thirty-four pages of source citations.

July 2006 Permalink