No Middle Ground
New York Times Book Review | September 3, 2006
MY friends Jenny and Greg were still digesting the news that Jenny was pregnant with triplets when, only moments later, their fertility doctor sat them down. After recounting the many things that might go wrong in a triple pregnancy, he said, “You really should consider reducing.”
Overwhelmed by the prospect of triplets, they were now horrified by the doctor’s casual attitude toward abortion. “Honestly,” Greg says, “I felt like there was no regard for human life.” He and Jenny did not “reduce,” and today their triplets are healthy toddlers. Asked how she feels now about the thought of aborting one of her children, Jenny gasps, “Oh, my God,” then chokes up before mustering the composure to say, “I guess that’s my answer.”
As it happens, Jenny and Greg both think abortion should be legal. They think people have a right to control their own bodies. But they also find the abortion issue distressing and difficult, and believe abortion should be reserved for special circumstances (theirs didn’t qualify). Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, is out to tell them their position is nonsense. In “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life,” he seeks to debunk what he views as an incoherent centrism while, as Marxists used to say, “heightening the contradictions” of abortion-rights advocates.
Ponnuru is at his best doing the latter. Gleefully and persuasively, he skewers the excesses and “tactical pirouettes” of abortion-rights absolutists: Because they would allow abortions even in the latest stages of pregnancy (and through “partial birth” procedures), their position gives them no firm purchase from which to oppose infanticide. They reject common-sense regulations requiring parents to be notified if minors seek abortions. They insist that abortion must be not just legal but subsidized. They deny that what Jenny and Greg’s doctor called “reducing” is more complicated morally than an appendectomy.
This “party of death” — “those who think that the inviolability of human life is an outdated or oppressive concept” — is not perfectly congruent with the Democratic Party, but in Ponnuru’s words, it has made the Democrats a “wholly owned subsidiary.” That distinction may seem less meaningful to many readers than it does to Ponnuru, who has been accused by his critics of political partisanship, and whose title and subtitle do their commercialistic best to give that impression. He is, however, the soul of fair-mindedness compared with many of his fellow pundits. (For instance, the conservative writer Ann Coulter, in her new book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism,” distinguishes Republicans from Democrats this way: “We’re the Blacks-Aren’t-Property/Don’t-Kill-Babies Party. They’re the Hookup party.” Now that’s partisanship.)
Ponnuru is capable of razor-edged moral acuity, and of a searching seriousness that many of his adversaries could learn from. “But of course the embryo looks exactly like a human being,” he writes in a knifelike sentence that pulled me up short: “It looks like a human being in the embryonic stage of development.” All the more disappointing, then, that even as he mercilessly exposes the implications of his adversaries’ position, he flinches from the implications of his own.
“Eight-week-old fetuses do not differ from 10-day-old babies in any way that would justify killing the former,” he writes. “The law will either treat the fetus as a human being with a right to be protected from unjust killing or it will not.” If those are the only choices, and if the right position is that an early-term fetus is a full-fledged person, why not impose jail terms on women who seek abortions? After all, they are taking out a contract for murder. Instead of confronting that question, Ponnuru equivocates, mumbling that “the pro-life movement” does not necessarily seek jail time for women and that fining doctors and revoking medical licenses might suffice.
He believes that discarding or destroying embryos should be forbidden, but should it be punishable as first-degree murder? If not, why not? If an embryo is morally indistinguishable from a newborn, then killing it is surely a heinous crime. If human life is “inviolable,” then why should it matter whether a hopelessly vegetative patient — someone like Terri Schiavo — left instructions not to be fed? Surely, from Ponnuru’s perspective, the doctors caring for her cannot ethically conspire to starve her to death even if she would prefer to die. If every abortion is infanticide, could even the most life-threatening pregnancy be ended? We don’t have a “health exception” to the murder laws.
Ponnuru says the issue should be returned to the states and abortion then banned in increments. He does not say what he thinks abortion law should finally look like, or how the hardest cases should be handled, or what to do about the surreptitious abortions that a ban would inevitably bring (though he does observe that antibiotics have made black-market abortions safer). One can be sure that if he were on the other side of the issue, he would zestfully denounce those omissions as tactical pirouettes.
Hard-line abortion opponents will find in Ponnuru’s book a bracing polemic. Hard-line abortion-rights advocates will find in it an unsettling challenge, or should. But to Jenny and Greg and millions of others (including me) who believe that a fetus, especially in early pregnancy, occupies a unique moral place of its own — a position somewhere between that of a 10-day-old and an appendix, but not analogous to either of those or to anything else — “The Party of Death” has little to say.