The Book On Life
Ramesh Ponnuru talks about what we're doing to life. Part 2 of 2.


Yesterday he talked Clintons, Rick Santorum’s challenger, and more. Today Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, continues his conversation with colleague Kathryn Lopez about the state of life in the U.S. (Read Part I here.)

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You’re actually somewhat kind to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in your book. Wassup with that?

Ramesh Ponnuru: I doubt Planned Parenthood would think so! I merely point out that her eugenicist and racist assumptions were widely, though not universally, shared in her day.

Lopez: You admit that you once supported abortion and euthanasia. What changed your mind?

Ponnuru: I tried to stay pro-choice on abortion for as long as I could, but I couldn’t rationally sustain the position. I just couldn’t see either how an embryo or fetus could be something other than a human being, how its moral status could depend on how other people felt about it, or how recognition of its humanity could be compatible with abortion. My views on the stem-cell questions all followed logically from there. On euthanasia, the turning points were, first, coming to see that there is a sensible distinction between accepting death and willing death and, second, the Schiavo episode, which struck me as monstrous.

Lopez: Would you now squeeze every last breath out of the sick and elderly?

Ponnuru: No. I think there are many cases in which it is perfectly morally defensible for someone to turn down a possibly life-extending medical treatment (or to turn such treatment down for someone else who is too incapacitated to make the decision). It can also be morally defensible to seek a medical intervention–such as, say, the administration of a lot of painkillers–that poses a risk of causing death. I think taking actions that are intended to cause death is a very different matter, and that the law ought, insofar as it can, take account of that difference.

Lopez: What’s a futilitarian?

Ponnuru: Someone who adheres to particular school of thought in medical ethics. Futilitarians believe that doctors should refuse to provide patients with certain treatments they want based on the doctors’ judgment that the patients’ lives are not worth living, or worth the effort of saving.

Lopez: Why are there “Down Syndrome children” and not “breast cancer women”?

Ponnuru: There’s a difference between trying to eliminate afflictions and trying to eliminate people who suffer from afflictions. When we identify people with their disabilities–referring not to “children with Down syndrome,” but to “Down syndrome children”–we can lull ourselves into blurring those concepts in a way that advances the new eugenics.

Lopez: Is focusing on people like Princeton’s Peter Singer somewhat unfair? Isn’t he just whacked?

Ponnuru: I argue in the book that Singer has been treated unfairly. First, he is not an isolated voice calling for infanticide. He has plenty of company in the universities, and increasingly in the press. Second, it is hard to come up with persuasive arguments against infanticide that are not also arguments against abortion (and few people have tried). Singer differs from most pro-choicers only in his willingness to embrace the logical consequences of the flawed premises he joins them in affirming.

Lopez: How much is the Supreme Court to blame for the state of life issues in America today?

Ponnuru: The Supreme Court imposed a policy of unrestricted abortion through all stages of pregnancy. It is the most extreme policy in the developed world. No state had adopted it, or would have adopted it in a free vote. The Court thus trampled both on justice and democracy.

Lopez: What did Ronald Reagan discover about “therapeutic abortions” and is it a lesson for the cloning debate?

Ponnuru: As governor of California, Reagan signed a law allowing abortion for health reasons and was surprised at how, in practice, that meant abortion on demand. The goalposts keep moving in the cloning debate, too. First we were supposed to accept research that kills the “leftover” embryos at fertility clinics, then research that kills embryos that are created–cloned–for the purpose of research. Increasingly we’re being asked to accept research that will kill cloned fetuses. It turns out that you can’t open the floodgates just a little.

Lopez: What’s the biggest advantage the pro-choice side has going for it? What is pro-lifers’ greatest disadvantage?

Ponnuru: Most Americans dislike and are uncomfortable with abortion. That helps pro-lifers. But that dislike and discomfort make them averse to hearing about the issue, which helps the status quo–which helps pro-choicers. The debate also increasingly concerns issues such as embryo research, where pro-lifers cannot make the kind of visceral appeal that they have made on abortion. There are no pictures of cute, innocent babies or even ultrasounds we can use, and no jarring images of dismemberment either.

Lopez: If everything I think I know about Roe v. Wade is a lie–and it’s safe to say that probably counts twice for most of the media–how the heck are we every going to get anywhere?

Ponnuru: Most people don’t realize that thanks to the Supreme Court, no state can prohibit abortion at any stage of pregnancy. And many people think that overturning Roe would amount to a ban on all abortions, which is unpopular. But once all Americans have read The Party of Death, they will know better.

Lopez: Let’s say I’m skeptical of pro-lifers in general, I’m turned off by the “Party of Death” title–I support legal abortion, but I don’t like it–I basically just don’t want to talk about it. So, anyway, I’m not exactly jumping to read your book. Why should I read it? And if there’s any one thing I read in it what would you want it to be? Where should loving friends and relatives send me?

Ponnuru: I’d start with the intro, which might help you overcome your problem with the title, and what you think it means. The chapter on Roe and the chapter on infanticide would also be good places to start.

Lopez: Why are you, Pro-life Ponnuru, optimistic?

Ponnuru: Our abortion policy is not in sync with people’s views; young people are more and more pro-life; and having truth on your side will ultimately count for something.

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