Dear Concerned Citizen,
tothesource: Congratulations on your fine book. Many of our readers are Democrats. On the third page of your introduction you write that the “party of death should not be confused with a conventional political party”. Yet your book’s subtitle is “The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.” Can you sort this out for us?
Ramesh Ponnuru: Thanks very much. The “party of death” is my term for all those forces in our politics and culture that are undermining the right to life. Those forces are present among both the Republicans and the Democrats, although they are at present stronger among the Democrats. That wasn’t always the case. One of the stories I tell in the book is of how the Democrats went from being the relatively pro-life party to being a strongly pro-abortion party, and how it cost the Democrats their majority in the country. The Democrats would be much stronger if they reconsidered their position on abortion, and I have a chapter on the beleaguered pro-life Democrats who are working toward that goal.
tts: So how did the Democratic party change, and why do you think it cost them votes?
Ponnuru: The Democrats had historically included a lot of working-class, socially conservative voters, often Catholic and evangelical. The Republicans, meanwhile, included many socially liberal Planned Parenthood supporters. But the McGovern nomination in 1972 represented a takeover of the Democratic party, at the elite level, by social liberals. Over time they alienated the social conservatives, most of whom left them for the Republicans, while attracting some of the old socially liberal Republicans.
The process fed on itself. As social conservatives left, the Democrats became more liberal, and that led to even more departures. But the process took time. As late as the mid-1980s, Democratic voters were still more likely to be pro-life than Republican voters.
Pro-life Democratic politicians—and there were many of them—began to realize that if they had national ambitions, they had to switch their positions. So one by one, pro-lifers such as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson Sr., Ted Kennedy, and Dick Durbin abandoned their pro-life pasts.
That may have been smart for them as individuals, but in the long run it proved disastrous for the Democratic party as a whole. There weren’t as many liberal Republicans as there were conservative Democrats, so picking up the first group and giving up the second wasn’t an advantageous trade.
tts: You write that everything we think we know about Roe v. Wade is a lie. What are the biggest whoppers?
Ponnuru: Roe v. Wade made abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy for essentially any reason. Even though Roehas been debated for more than a generation now, the vast majority of Americans still don’t know this. They think, incorrectly, that Roe applied only to the first trimester. They don’t realize that this is a policy supported by only about 10 percent of the American public, and a policy that is far more extreme than that of any European country.
People often say that the country was headed in this direction even before Roecame down, but in fact no state had adopted an abortion policy this extreme by democratic means. The public was ambivalent, at best, about abortions early in pregnancy, and solidly opposed to later-term abortions.
Finally, people often imagine that Roe was good for women’s health. In the 1960s, pro-abortion groups often claimed that 5,000 women were dying every year in back-alley abortions. Senator Barbara Boxer draws on those claims today when she says that prohibiting abortion—or even confirming a Supreme Court justice who might vote to let states prohibit it—would cause 5,000 women a year to die. But Bernard Nathanson, one of the founders of the leading pro-abortion group, later admitted that the statistics had been invented.
In reality, the increased use of antibiotics sent the number of deaths plummeting in the 1940s and 1950s, well before any state had made abortion legal. The government reports that the year before Roe came down, 39 women died in illegal abortions, and 24 died in legal ones.
tts: What connection do you see between legalized abortion and the other issues—from euthanasia to stem-cell research to infanticide—that you deal with in the book?
Ponnuru: The most sophisticated and coherent arguments for abortion concede that it kills a living human organism. My title is derived in part from the liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who opened his book defending abortion and euthanasia by saying that they were “choices for death.” How can these choices for death be justified? Basically, by arguing that the human beings who are killed by these choices are not “persons” with rights.
That notion—that there are “human non-persons,” with no rights–is extremely dangerous. Because after you put unborn children in that category, it becomes hard to explain why other groups aren’t in it, too. People in comas, for example. Or cloned human embryos. Even infants: I think we are in the opening stages of a campaign to legitimize infanticide. Many academics, and not just Peter Singer, have been arguing for infanticide for years, and some journalists are beginning to make that case too.
tts: Jim Wallis has been going around the country promoting a best selling book (humbly titled God’s Politics), holding prophetic revivals for justice in Philadelphia, and in general dismissing pro-lifers as hypocrites because many of them, he believes, do not hold a consistent ethic of life. He thinks those fighting abortion must also join the struggle against the death penalty, war, and poverty. Wallis says that conservative pro-lifers seem only to be concerned with human rights and human suffering before birth. What would you say to Mr. Wallis about his criticism that many social conservatives such as yourself cherry pick your life issues?
Ponnuru: For many years Jim Wallis has been a liberal voice against abortion and euthanasia. I am sorry to say that recently, and especially in God’s Politics, he has been equivocating on these issues. I realize that it is hard to be a pro-life Democrat, with all the pressures to alter or mute your position, but I hope that he will recover his voice on these questions.
I think that war, the death penalty, and poverty raise very serious moral issues. But they are mostly distinct from the issues I consider in the book. Some honorable people take the pacifist or near-pacifist line that Wallis takes on war. But for the rest of us, the key moral question is whether a war is just and is being fought justly. The answer varies with the war we’re thinking about, and it depends on complex factual determinations, judgments about the likelihood of success, and so on. Notice how different the arguments about the Iraq war are, for example, from the arguments I treat in my book. Nobody ever seriously argued for the Iraq war based on the idea that Iraqis aren’t persons with rights.
Nor are serious arguments for the death penalty based on the denial of personhood. Advocates of the death penalty sometimes say that we can forfeit the right to life through our actions, not that we don’t have it in the first place, or that the death penalty is an extension of society’s right to defend itself. I don’t agree with these views, and I oppose the death penalty, but it’s a different argument.
We are morally obligated to fight poverty, but how we should go about fighting poverty is a complicated question about which people of good faith can disagree. Should we expand government services to the poor? Or should we reform them, the way we reformed welfare? Or both? Or try to encourage economic growth in the hope that a rising tide will lift all boats? I’m afraid that Wallis acts as though the mostly liberal policies he prefers are simply moral imperatives and gives short shrift to the complications.
Again, the abortion debate is not very similar. We don’t have a debate in which everyone agrees that the law should aim to protect unborn human beings from being killed, and the only questions are tactical and practical: whether to act at the federal or state level, for example. The debate is about the core issue of whether abortion is an evil in the first place.
tts: Will Roe fall? And if it does, what will America after Roe look like?
Ponnuru: Roe has always been something of a laughingstock intellectually. It is very hard to maintain that anyone who ratified the Constitution and its amendments meant to protect abortion. It’s just not there. Over time Roe has grown politically weaker too. Over the last fifteen years the public, influenced by technological developments such as the spread of ultrasound imaging and political developments such as the campaign against partial-birth abortion, has moved in a pro-life direction. Young people are now more pro-life than their elders. So I’m optimistic that Roe will eventually fall. And then abortion policy will be set democratically. Some states, such as California, will probably keep first-trimester abortion legal. But almost all states will ban late-term abortions, and some states will ban most abortions. I hope that what happens is that pro-lifers move incrementally to build a culture of life. In short, the end of Roe doesn’t mean pro-lifers win the policy debate. It just means we get to have the policy debate that Roeshort-circuited: We have the chance to persuade our fellow citizens to protect life.