In his first book, The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru fills a gap, providing the first general overview of life issues written for a popular audience in the last 20 years. It’s a badly needed effort, for the situation has certainly changed over the last two decades, and not for the better: New manipulative and destructive scientific techniques threaten embryonic human lives, and aggressive attempts to normalize and legalize assisted suicide and even involuntary euthanasia have gained strength in many Western nations.
The title might lead one to believe that this is, first and foremost, a political book. It isn’t. Politics definitely is an important part of the mix, but when Ponnuru writes of the party of death he doesn’t mean a specific political party. He’s referring to those who support unfettered abortion access, assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, and so on — politicians, activists, scholars, judges, and medical types. The party of death is a social and cultural reality, and not only a political party. Included in that Venn diagram of members is the Democratic Party. Although it isn’t the focus of the book, it gets its due attention, particularly in the chapters on abortion.
The Party of Death is a comprehensive survey of the most pressing life issues, how they play out in various ways throughout American culture, and who is moving them. The first section is concerned with abortion, and while those who follow these issues closely will find much that is familiar here, there is great value in having the contemporary abortion scene in the United States laid out in a clear way. Ponnuru dissects the legal status of abortion, the impact of abortion on women (although he could perhaps have said a bit more about that), the current state of the philosophical debates on personhood, and the media’s treatment of the issue.
What Ponnuru does particularly well is connect the dots, rip the lid off lies and ambiguities, and ask simple, quite logical questions, as in, “Do pro-choice advocates really disagree with Peter Singer about infanticide?”
In this abortion section, as well as in the rest of the book, the most important contribution to the current debate Ponnuru makes is the way in which he relentlessly hangs on to logic and refuses to accept the assumptions of conventional wisdom. The arguments of pro-lifers are frequently denigrated for having a religious dimension; but, Ponnuru asks, really, which argument is based on spiritual voodoo and which on reason? The view that there’s some point, based on something that we can’t quite commonly define, at which this growing human being somehow enters the human community and before which he can be killed? Or the view that says, “Conception. Individual human life begins then. Protect that life from that point on”?
Ponnuru also does a great service in his chapter on abortion and American history. In 1992, a large group of historians, some of them well-known even to the general public, submitted a brief in the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which several Pennsylvania statutes placing limitations on the abortion “right” were challenged. The historians maintained that that wasn’t a violation of common law in colonial America and that the move to criminalize abortion in the 19th century was based not on the desire to protect unborn life, but rather to “protect women from unsafe abortions, to help physicians to constitute themselves as a profession, to enforce gender roles, and to prevent Catholic immigrants from increasing their proportion of the population.”
This brief has been widely derided as a political statement in which historical data are either used selectively, fabricated, or ignored. A useful book-length examination of the 19th-century move to criminalize abortion is The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion by Frederick N. Dyer. Ponnuru’s chapter dissecting the brief, “The Corruption of History,” is thorough and devastating. Casey has made its way into what many in the general public assume they know about abortion. Ponnuru’s chapter is an invaluable and handy corrective.
In subsequent sections on euthanasia, assisted suicide, and embryo-destructive research, Ponnuru makes his way gracefully and clearly through all the cant, examining the contentions of those who support and work for these causes directly and indirectly — in politics, activist groups, the media, and simply in the realm of public opinion — continually asking, What are they really saying? What motivates them? What are they ignoring?
The discussion about life issues in this country is frustrating for anyone determined to speak honestly and without empty platitudes. Anyone involved in the movement at any level has stories to tell about the constant obfuscation, deceit, and subject-changing that are the stock in trade of proponents of abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive research. Just as frustrating as the deceptiveness is the illogic and absolute refusal to follow arguments — even the reality of death-dealing — to their obvious conclusions.
In The Party of Death, Ponnuru presents these “arguments,” such as they are, and does what the secular media resolutely refuse to do: cut through the slippery language and fog of half-truths and invite society to ask serious questions. What does a culture formed by this party of death look like? Is this really the way we want to live? What’s motivating this party of death? What lies do they tell… and why? It’s a persuasive and elegantly clear book that one who is in frequent dialogue on any of these issues will want to keep on hand to share with those who might be open, even slightly, to seeing things simply as they are.