Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, abortion aroused misgivings more than it did organized opposition. Americans who put aside their misgivings about making some abortions legal never dreamt that they were weakening legal protections for all the unborn, or for the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and the depressed. Yet the logic of abortion, the dynamics of politics, and the habituation of the mind to yesterday's innovations have brought about these results.

The Democratic party has followed a more extreme version of the same trajectory America has. It reached its current state gradually, almost, it seems, accidentally. It did not make a conscious decision, some time in the late 1960s, to become the chief political vehicle for all those who think that the inviolability of human life is an outdated or oppressive concept. But it is today the party of abortion on demand and embryo-killing research, and is on its way to becoming the party of assisted suicide and euthanasia. [...]

And we may not have reached the end of the line. Today, the country's leading newspaper considers the killing of sick infants -- for their own good, you understand -- a debatable proposition.

It is the linkage among these issues that makes it possible to speak of a "party of death." The phrase is meant to be descriptive, not (purely) pejorative. The partys core members are those who explicitly deny that all human beings are equal in having a right to life and who propose the creation of a category of "human non-persons" who can be treated as expendable. [...]

The party of death should not be confused with a conventional political party: It has members (and opponents) within both of America's major political parties, although it is much stronger today among Democrats than Republicans.
    Ramesh Ponnuru, INTRODUCTION: The Party of Death
First, allow me to eschew any pretense of impartiality as regards the author of this fine book, Ramesh Ponnuru. Not only was he kind enough to allow us to use one of his essays -- The Empire of Freedom: Where the United States Belongs (Ramesh Ponnuru, March 24, 2003, National Review) -- in our book, but he's graciously agreed to participate in a panel discussion on Redefining Sovereignty too. Suffice it to say, I'm predisposed in his favor. That said, The Party of Death is an important book both for Mr. Ponnuru's morally exacting defense of the sanctity of human life and for his devastating portrayal of the damage that the Democratic Party has inflicted upon itself by becoming the center of opposition to life and the chief advocates for death.

The book is divided into three parts, the first two of which deal with the moral questions surrounding abortion and then euthanasia/stem cells/eugenics. Each is well worth reading, but will be familiar to many and aren't necessarily going to change people's minds. Ultimately:
[W]e come to the fundamental question in dispute. That question can be described in different ways: whether all human beings have a right not to be killed; whether membership in the human species is enough to confer rights; whether we accept the existence of a category of human non-persons. Opponents of abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, and infanticide believe that all human beings should be protected from being killed. They believe, further, that to the extent America fails to provide this protection it betrays its own founding principles. The party of death, on the other hand, believes that some human beings deserve that protection and some do not.
This does not seem a particularly extreme way of stating the divide--even most abortion proponents do not argue that a child ought have no rights, but that whatever rights he has must yield, for at least some period of time, to those of his mother. At the heart of the matter lies the assertion that some people are more equal than others. Mr. Ponnuru carefully describes how interest groups, intellectual, judges, and the media have combined to make the case for this core idea and how it has come to very nearly define the modern Democratic Party.

It's the third section, on the political fallout from these controversies and the effect on Democrats, that is fresh and may surprise folks. Indeed, one fact really leaps out of the pages and seems almost dispositive:
Kristen Day explains the decline of the Democratic party with just a few numbers.

In 1978, she points out, there were 292 Democratic members of the House of Representatives: a large majority. One hundred twenty-five of them were pro-lifers.

By 2004, there were only about thirty pro-life Democrats in the House--and only 203 House Democrats, period.
While it's probably impossible to quantify the exact causes of the political shift Rightwards over the past twenty-five years and it's doubtful that the correlation is as precise as those numbers suggest, the stubborn reality remains that you can account for the entire realignment of the House solely be reference to the question of life. Mr. Ponnuru cites an essay by the mercurial commentator Michael Lind that puts the Democrats' dilemma especially concisely, the only way that democrats can regain a majority (Michael Lind, 8/04/05, TPM Cafe)
The good news for Democrats is that they can regain the majority if the now-dead Civil Rights Democrat coalition of 1968-2004, a coalition of social liberals who agreed to disagree about economic issues, is replaced by something like the New Deal coalition of 1932-68, a coalition of economic liberals who agree to disagree about social issues.

The bad news for social liberals is that in a Democratic majority defined by economic liberalism the social liberals would be the minority in their own party and the socially conservative, economically liberal populists would be the majority. Not only would social liberals have to welcome back pro-middle-class-welfare-state social conservatives to the Democratic party, but also they would have to consent to being the junior partners, as in the New Deal era.

Social liberals can be the minority in a majority party. Or social liberals can be the majority in a minority party. But social liberals can't be the majority in a majority party--not in the United States, not in the foreseeable future. There just aren't enough social liberals in the American electorate.
In effect, so long as the Party maintains an ideology of death on demand as its raison d'etre --for the very young, the very old, the lame, etc. -- it is destined to be electorally estranged from the great majority of Americans.

Mr. Ponnuru makes the forgoing case to devastating effect and the book is excellent as far as he goes. I think, however, that there's a legitimate criticism to be made that he does not go far enough. In particular, it would be a better, more timeless and more balanced book if he had treated the Darwinian Right, which has had a long romance with eugenics and other quacky racialist theories and must be considered central to the creation of an ethos that holds that certain lives are "not worthy of being lived." Recall Oliver Wendell Holmes's infamous opinion in the Buck case--concerning the forced sterilization of a retarded woman--that three generations of imbeciles are enough. Perhaps you have to be a few years older than Mr. Ponnuru, as I am, to recall that one of the none too subtle selling points for abortion in the 70s was the promise that it would mainly be used by poor black women to get rid of their unwanted babies. But, all of us Reaganauts recall with regret that it was he who signed California's permissive abortion law and every time there's an open Supreme Court seat we're reminded that Roe was written by a Republican judge appointed by a Republican president. Likewise, the current bout of nativism on the Right gives off the old-time odor of racism that all too easily lends itself to devaluing the lives of "others." It was little surprise then to discover that the most vicious attack on Mr. Ponnuru's book has come not from an offended Democrat but from his rabidly anti-immigration, anti-Arab, pretty much anti-everybody, colleague at National Review, John Derbyshire. While Mr. Ponnuru may not recognize that such "conservatives" are themselves of the Party of Death, the vitriol with which Mr. Derbyshire responds demonstrates that he realizes the book is ultimately about his ideology too. The Right has done much to redeem itself for past support of anti-human positions, but there are still portions of the house that need to be swept clean. It would have been nice to see Mr. Ponnuru take on the task. It could have made an already very good book a truly great one.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Ramesh Ponnuru Links:

    -ARCHIVES: Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review
    -Ramesh Ponnuru (Wikipedia)
    -BOOK SITE: The Party of Death (Regnery)
    -The Party of Death (Wikipedia)
    -ESSAY: Unreason: John Derbyshire vs. pro-lifers. (Ramesh Ponnuru, 6/07/06, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Winning, and Losing, on Abortion: How go the wars? (Ramesh Ponnuru, May 8, 2006, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Partial Truth: The press and partial-birth abortion. (Ramesh Ponnuru, 5/01/06, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Half-Life: WHAT IF ROE IS OVERTURNED? (Ramesh Ponnuru, 04.21.06, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Life Goes On: What happens if Roe falls? A discussion continued. (Ramesh Ponnuru, April 24, 2006, National Review)
    -ESSAY: President for Life: The case for gratitude. (Ramesh Ponnuru, April 26, 2005, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Secularism and Its Discontents: The debate over religion and politics is in desperate need of sanity (Ramesh Ponnuru, December 27, 2004, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Ron’s Moment: Stem-cell delusions (Ramesh Ponnuru, July 27, 2004, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Stem Cells: The Case for Bush’s Policy (Ramesh Ponnuru, Fall 2004, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: Why Conservatives Are Divided (Ramesh Ponnuru,October 17, 2005, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The New Abortion Debate (Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru, April 1996, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Cracking the door: If Democrats want to thrive, they'll tolerate more pro-lifers like Bill Ritter (Ramesh Ponnuru, May 27, 2006, Rocky Mountain News)
    -ESSAY: The New Investor Class and Its Critics (Ramesh Ponnuru, 03/17/2005, Tech Central Station)
    -ESSAY: Letter to a Democrat: The case against a vote for Kerry (Ramesh Ponnuru, October 22, 2004, Atlantic Unbound)
    -ESSAY: The Empire of Freedom: Where the United States Belongs (Ramesh Ponnuru, March 24, 2003, National Review)
    -SPEECH: Ramesh Ponnuru: The Stakes in the Election (Ashbrook Center, October 20, 2004)
    -ARCHIVES: Ponnuru (Brothers Judd Blog)
    -ARCHIVES: Ramesh Ponnuru (Tech Central Station)
    -ARCHIVES: Ramesh Ponnuru (New Republic)
    -ARCHIVES: Ramesh Ponnuru (Find Articles)
    -INTERVIEW: Party of Death: Ramesh Ponnuru on what we’re doing to life (Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez, April 24, 2006, National Review)
    -INTERVIEW: The Party of Death (Tom Ashbrook, June 15, 2006, On Point)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A with Ramesh Ponnuru (Kevin Holtsberry, April 27, 2006, Collected Miscellany)
    -AUDIO CONFERENCE: Life and Death -- Principles and Politics: A Conversation about Abortion, Bioethics, and American Politics (Ethics and Public Policy Center, July 11, 2006)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Ramesh Ponnuru (Jon Stewart, 5/18/06)
    -INTERVIEW: Catholic and Conservative: A Conversation with Ramesh Ponnuru (Ignatius Insight, October 2004)
    -INTERVIEW: Evolutionary War: CONSERVATIVES AND EVOLUTION (Ben Adler, 07.07.05, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life by Ramesh Ponnuru (Wesley J. Smith, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Mark Steyn, Maclean's)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (MARK STRICHERZ, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Jonah Goldberg, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Peter Berkowitz, Opinion Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (John O'Sullivan, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Joseph Knippenberg, The American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (john Derbyshire, New English Review)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Scott, Aggressive Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Dave Andrusko, National Right to Life News)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Joe Carter, World Views)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Blake D. Dvorak, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Michael New, NY Post)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Rabbi Aryeh Spero, Human Events)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Sean Higgins, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Doug Giles, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Jonathan Last, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Samuel James, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (Kevin Holtsberry, Collected Miscellany)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (JONATHAN RAUCH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death (

Book-related and General Links: