Princeton professor Robert George, one of America's leading moral philosophers, recently visited the Vatican for an audience with the Pope. He faced an age-old dilemma: "What's a good gift for the Pope?" This time the answer was obvious. He gave him Ramesh Ponnuru's new book, "The Party of Death."
Ponnuru, my close friend and colleague at National Review, has written the first serious pro-life book for a general audience in decades. It is a humane, sustained and, most of all, respectful argument about respecting life from abortion, eugenics and euthanasia.
"Respectful!?" I can hear the shrieking now. "It's called The Party ... of ... Death." Indeed, the mere title has enraged some to the point of distraction. Time's in-house blogger, Andrew Sullivan, spent days denouncing both Ponnuru and the book while admitting he hadn't read a word.
Sure. the title is provocative - and deliberately so. But it's ironic: Media thumb-suckers are decrying the fact that Ann Coulter's outrageous rhetoric grabs media attention. Karen Tumulty of Time noted that Coulter "very shrewdly recognizes that the level of discourse now has become so loud and so angry that you have to go that much further over the top than you did the last time to get anybody to listen to you." So here's Ponnuru with a supposedly over-the-top title, but the "Today" show hasn't called. Maybe if he wore a blond wig?
The title offends not because it is unfair but because it is blunt. Ponnuru cuts through the bunker of euphemisms we hide behind to avoid dealing with topics like abortion. It's hardly news to Americans that the vast majority of us don't like to talk about abortion. "The Party of Death" states bluntly what people would rather couch in euphemism or, better yet, not say at all.
Some are vexed by the word "party," thinking it explicitly means Democrats. It doesn't (though it certainly includes many). Ponnuru uses the term "Party of Death" the way The Nation uses "the war party" to describe hawks everywhere. But "death" is the important word. Abortion, right or wrong, is a "choice for death." That's neither my description nor Ponnuru's, but liberal philosopher Ronald Dworkin's. No serious person disputes that abortion kills something. The debate is over what it kills, and who gets to decide.
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.