Which brings us back to America's ambivalence. Most Americans, it's often said, are against most abortions. Most oppose killing an 8-month-old fetus. Far fewer oppose killing a 2-day-old embryo.
Except in a tactical sense, most pro-choice and pro-life activists don't really care what Americans think. Both sides believe such decisions shouldn't be subject to the whims of the electorate. We don't put the criminality of murder or assault up for a vote, abortion foes say, so why do so with abortion? Abortion-rights supporters similarly see democracy as a distraction. Voters don't decide when I can have my appendix out, why should we let them decide when a woman can have her "uterine contents" removed?
That's where the Supreme Court comes in. Right now, abortion rights defenders have their ideal legal regime. But don't say that too loudly. Ever since 1973, Roe v. Wade has been cast by the media as some sort of grand compromise between the "extremes." But as Ponnuru methodically demonstrates, this isn't true. Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, make abortion on demand a constitutional right straight up until moments before the birth. States may regulate abortion in the second and third trimester, says the court, but not if they run afoul of the mother's "health." That sounds reasonable. But "health" can mean anything falling under the elastic category of the patient's overall "well-being." Pollsters often compound the confusion by asking Americans if they support Roe even as they mischaracterize it as a decision which protects abortion rights only in the first three months of pregnancy.
On many issues, we're told that what America needs is a full and frank "conversation." But not on abortion. Supposedly nonpartisan experts insist that the GOP should just drop the subject - even though opposition to abortion has helped make the GOP the majority party in America.
Some intellectuals say they want a conversation, but they say, "Keep religion out of it." The New Republic's Peter Beinart, echoing the philosopher John Rawls, says that abortion opponents should only make arguments "accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all." This sounds reasonable, too. But once they declare religious views illegitimate - a stance that would have surprised Martin Luther King - they can then brand any unwelcome position "religious" and therefore illegitimate.
Ponnuru scrupulously sticks to nonreligious arguments, accessible to everyone. But that hasn't stopped critics from charging that his motives are unacceptably "religious," while others have complained Ponnuru is too coldly rational. Again it seems Ponnuru's real sin isn't how he says things but that he says them at all.