Politics & Policy

Unreason

John Derbyshire vs. pro-lifers.

John Derbyshire has written a long attack on pro-lifers, my book, and me. Opening lines: “Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind.” It is, I suppose, to Derbyshire’s credit that he does not pretend to be “personally opposed” to abortion or euthanasia, but rather straightforwardly argues for them.

#ad#He does, however, get some of his facts wrong. He writes: “Some people would say that a writer who refers to embryos as ‘the young,’ to Mrs. Schiavo as ‘disabled,’ or to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment as having carefully pondered its implications for abortion, is just plain dishonest.” Derbyshire is making three accusations here, and none of them is true. Although it might be reasonable to refer to embryos as “the young,” depending on the context, I don’t do it in The Party of Death. I don’t refer to Mrs. Schiavo as “disabled,” although I quote someone else who does. I certainly don’t maintain that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment “carefully pondered” its implications for abortion, or pondered them at all. Other than that, the sentence is fine. Derbyshire’s passage on embryonic-stem-cell research is similarly sloppy.

Derbyshire also makes some peculiar judgments. Derbyshire believes that the people who opposed the starvation of Terri Schiavo were all insane–his denunciation of us is the most entertainingly florid section of the review–and engaged in “monstrous character assassination of Michael Schiavo.” There were no excesses, apparently, on the other side. That’s his view, and he’s entitled to it. But so committed is Derbyshire to the pro-Michael Schiavo version of this story that he condemns me for not making every point that could be made in his defense. When I make a specific criticism of pro-lifers’ treatment of Mr. Schiavo, he condemns me for not going far enough. Indeed, he portrays me as Stalinist whitewashing pro-lifers’ record (“Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik”). He concludes: “Michael Schiavo is a good man criminally traduced by brutal, unprincipled RTL fanatics, from whose number, on the evidence of this chapter, Ponnuru cannot with certainty be excluded.” That man is a fanatic; he disagrees with me.

Derbyshire goes on to speculate about my religion and my “disingenuous” treatment of it. “Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief.” I have made a show of reasoning, but my conclusions have all rather conveniently lined up with the teachings of my church. “Protestations like Ponnuru’s, that the movement is not innately religious at all, should in fact be viewed with suspicion, as tactical attempts to inoculate RTL against courtroom defeats on church-state grounds.” I’m not sure what makes Derbyshire so confident that he knows what inspires me. For the record, my views on abortion have not changed since I was an agnostic.

It is true that I am a Catholic. It is also true that I believe that my church’s teaching on abortion is reasonable, sound, and correct. It is because I came to believe that Catholicism is true, after all, that I became a Catholic. If I didn’t believe Catholic teachings were true, I wouldn’t be a Catholic. So what? With this move, Derbyshire hasn’t discredited the soundness or reasonableness of my conclusions or of my method of reaching them. He has shown only that he has a weakness for the cleverly worded fallacy, or a fideistic understanding of religion.

Derbyshire writes: “The open glee with which pro-lifers greeted the recent elevation of two practicing Roman Catholics to the U.S. Supreme Court suggests that however much Ramesh Ponnuru might affirm the not-essentially-religious nature of the RTL thingummy, pro-lifers in general see matters otherwise.” Do pro-lifers think that serious Catholics are more likely to vote against Roe than other people? Of course we do. Who denies that? Certainly not me; I said as much during the confirmation hearings of both men. But note that most “pro-lifers” were gleeful, not just the Catholics among them; and note that most of those people supported the Bork nomination back in 1987, when Bork was not religious.

Derbyshire wants to exclude both religion and reason as guides to the moral truth about abortion, euthanasia, and related issues. In their place he exalts feelings, and criticizes me as “creepy,” “frigid,” “pitiless,” “inhuman,” and, worst, an “intellectual,” for not going along. This is the anti-intellectual core of his essay. (There is also a lot of piling on of rhetoric. “For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years.” Gaseous is just the right word for this sort of logorrhea.) “America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.”

The state cannot “leave us alone” in deciding under what circumstances to kill one another. There have to be rules, and we have to find some basis for figuring out what they should be. The notion that everyone’s natural feelings lead to support of abortion and euthanasia, and that intellectuals have recently been trying to overcome these natural inclinations, is preposterous–something, indeed, that only an intellectual could believe. That abortion was a crime used to be something nearly universally accepted, and felt. It took, among other things, a lot of intellectual work to change that. Many people changed their feelings in response to new ideas, and new situations partly created by those ideas. (And some people changed their ideas based on their feelings.) How should we feel about abortion? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we feel less appalled by it than we used to? These are intelligible questions. You don’t have to have a high estimate of “the power of reason in human affairs” to think that the enterprise of reasoning about these matters should not be dismissed.

It is interesting–and of course gratifying–that the two leading criticisms of my book (Peter Berkowitz’s thoughtful review in the Wall Street Journal and Derbyshire’s intemperate essay) both attempt an escape from reason. This is nihilism. It is also laziness.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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