Authors are forever complaining that reviewers, instead of assessing the books they wrote, fault them for not having written a different book. If a book does a good job of covering the topics it takes up, the fact that it doesn’t take up other topics shouldn’t matter.
What is more galling is what happened to me over the weekend: A reviewer faulted my book for allegedly not having addressed topics that it did, in fact, address. What makes it even more annoying is that the reviewer has so much manifest good will that I can’t hold a grudge against him. Jonathan Rauch, reviewing The Party of Death in the New York Times, writes all kinds of nice things about me. (“Ponnuru is capable of razor-edged moral acuity, and of a searching seriousness that many of his adversaries could learn from.” That would look nice on a book jacket, no?) But he asks why I “flinch” from the implications of my views.
Rauch writes that I don’t explain whether I think women should get jail terms for seeking abortions, instead “mumbling that ‘the pro-life movement’ does not necessarily seek jail time for women and that fining doctors and revoking medical licenses might suffice.” Continuing in the same vein, Rauch asks whether I would punish the discarding or destroying of embryos as first-degree murder. And:
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.
Rauch’s characterization of Schiavo as having “left instructions not to be fed” is a considerable overstatement, at best, as Wesley Smith has noticed. But Rauch doesn’t need to guess about my views on whether doctors can “ethically conspire to starve” patients who want them to. I lay out those views in my chapter on Schiavo. Page 126: “It made tactical sense [for pro-lifers] to question whether Mrs. Schiavo really would have wanted to die this way. But in asking it, pro-lifers failed to challenge the notion that it is acceptable to kill those who wish to be killed.” Page 127: “The right to life. . . cannot depend on race, or age, or health, or sex. It cannot depend even on whether the person who has it wants it. . .” And so on.
It is true that I don’t lay out a detailed version of an ideal legal code concerning abortion. I had three important reasons for this “omission.” The first is that legislatures and voting publics are not yet in a position to be enacting ideal legal codes, and the case for allowing them to do so — which can include a case for the general reasonableness of the anti-abortion position — has to be made before it makes much sense to proceed to the next steps.
The second, related one is that my view of politics is not utopian. A slow process of persuasion, of asymptotic approaches to justice, is not a compromise; it is the very best that we can hope for. I have no illusions, and indulge none in the book, about the likelihood that a democratic resolution of the abortion debate would involve the triumph of my views on, say, the permissibility of aborting fetuses because of their disabilities. If we reach a point where unborn children are generally protected, I may write a book attempting more persuasion. But it would be a very different book.
My third reason is that there is considerable room for prudential judgment in the drawing up of laws. In one state, penalties might have to be tougher to deter a crime. I don’t have an ideal legal code in mind for prohibiting homicide in general, and I think that homicide laws may rightly vary according to the circumstances of time and jurisdiction. That doesn’t nullify my view that all places ought to prohibit homicide.
Yet I say enough to refute the charge that Rauch makes. I don’t sidestep the issues he addresses. See page 262, where I offer a reason for considering abortion “less culpable than, say, the murder of a business rival out of greed,” and for thinking it “just to impose less severe punishments.” I also explicitly say that if a legal regime of delicensure and fines for abortionists “deterred abortion and communicated the state’s and the public’s hostility to abortion. . . there would, in my view, be no need to go further” (p. 246).
In other words, I outlined the principles that ought to govern these laws in as much detail as the matter allows. I explained the sense in which abortion is analogous to other kinds of homicide (its deliberate ending of a peaceable human being’s life) and the sense in which it is not (the subjective moral intent likely to be behind the act). To put it a different way: While I cannot assent to the common pro-choice argument that we should allow the killing of unborn human beings since our society includes people who take many different good-faith moral views about the issue, I can see this pluralism as a legitimate reason for lenity in enforcing the prohibition.
Oh, and one more thing while we’re on this passage: Our homicide laws certainly do allow people to use lethal force to save their own lives in some cases. Has Rauch ever heard of justifiable homicide?
Rauch’s other great criticism of my book is that it allegedly “has little to say” to people who take “centrist” views on abortion. It is a bizarre criticism, for these reasons.
First: Rauch’s headline is “No Middle Ground,” the subheadline says that the book “makes a case against centrism,” and he writes that it “seeks to debunk what [Ponnuru] views as an incoherent centrism.” While none of that is true, none of it is compatible with Rauch’s charge either. Either I have “little to say” about the centrist position, or my book is concerned to make a case against it (perhaps an unsuccessful one).
Second: It’s not as though Rauch welcomes my efforts to find a middle ground. If I say, for example, that I think abortion should generally be prohibited but women who seek it should not be jailed, Rauch doesn’t praise my moderation. He says I’m being inconsistent and ducking the issues. His whole line of argument — and in this he is very typical of sophisticated pro-choice writers — is designed to push pro-lifers such as me toward a more extreme position.
Third: Rauch, while demanding that my views pass rigorous tests of internal coherence and consistency, offers no reasons at all for holding his own. He simply asserts that an unborn child has a status somewhere between that of an appendix and that of a ten-year-old and isn’t analogous to anything else. (Thanks for clearing that up.) I offered reasons for thinking that an unborn child is like a ten-year-old in having a right not to be deliberately killed. Rauch offers no counterargument at all. The idea that his “centrist” position is incoherent isn’t some proposition I invented. It’s demonstrated by his own inability to come up with anything to say in its defense.
Fourth: My book spends a fair amount of time arguing that the center of American politics on abortion is very different from what Rauch imagines it to be. My first chapter opens with a description of how Hillary Clinton could take a centrist pro-life position. Chapter 17 takes a detailed look at the structure of public opinion, arguing that the median American, while rejecting militancy and regarding abortion as a low-priority issue, thinks that most abortions should be legally restricted in a series of incremental steps — which is precisely the course of action the book recommends. The last chapter explains how a centrist pro-life politics might prevail, and lead to less political polarization generally, in a post-Roe world.
The book is an argument for a kind of centrism, in other words, if not the one Jonathan Rauch wants.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is an NR senior editor and author of The Party of Death.