»  New English Review

June 2006

  A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma


Party of Death
by Ramesh Ponnuru
Regnery; 308 pp. $27.95

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing — the Führerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside — among whom, obviously, I count myself — it seems to some degree (depending on the observer's temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty. My own ratings of RTL on those three degrees are 2, 6, and 4 out of a possible ten each.

The second of those ratings would have been lower before the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus "Nobel Prize nominees," emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for "life," dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of "Terri" as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.

On the other hand, the first of those ratings would have been a couple of ticks higher before I read Party of Death. Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult — cause, movement, whatever — could hope for; so much so that (just to complete the set) the third of my ratings went up by a corresponding amount after setting down his book. With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land. A general reduction of our liberties would indeed follow, since RTL is, in its essence, an authoritarian movement, whose ultimate desire is to boss the rest of us around.

Whether it is a cult or not, RTL is made as presentable as possible in Party of Death, with writing that is engaging and lucid. Will Ponnuru's book make any converts to the RTL whatever-it-is? That depends on how much exposure it gets outside RTL circles. Just to be on the safe side, the mainstream media are studiously ignoring the book — a sad reflection on the current state of public debate, and of respect for rhetorical virtuosity. RTL-ers are welcoming Party of Death very joyfully, though, and they are right to do so, as it is an exceptionally fine piece of polemical writing in support of their … cause.

The word "polemical" needs emphasizing. 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. There are matters of taste involved here. In the case of this reviewer, there is some fundamental transatlantic disagreement, too, I think. A great British opinion journalist once described his skill set as "the vituperative arts." This attitude, which I share, is widely held across the Pond, but is not very popular here in what Florence King calls the Republic of Nice. Personally I don't mind rhetorical sleights of hand in a polemical work. They keep you on your toes, which is where you should be when reading a book like this. Readers of a more nervous disposition, or too much afflicted with the middle-class American terror of strong opinions, might take offense at them, though. (The absurd hyperventilating from some quarters over the book's title also comes within the scope of this paragraph. I think the title is perfect — just the one I would have chosen myself in Ponnuru's place.)


Party of Death is organized in three parts, their lengths in approximate ratio 3:2:2. The first and longest part deals with abortion; the second with the other RTL issues; the third with the treatment of RTL matters in the public sphere — in the media and in politics (but not in the courts, as RTL jurisprudence is pretty thoroughly covered in Part One). To a person coming to the book from outside the RTL mentality, I think the second part will have most interest, and will be found to make the most telling points. An exception there is the major point made in Part One, that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is lousy jurisprudence, an assertion that seems to me indisputable. Since the Constitution has nothing to say about abortion, this is a matter for the states, and the Supreme Court should have left it there. What else is there to be said?

Ponnuru manages to find a great deal else, and presents it all in Part One of his book. He shows that Roe v. Wade (buttressed by later decisions like the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey), as well as being jurisprudentially preposterous, is very widely misunderstood, to the disadvantage of the RTL point of view. Commentators one would expect to be well-informed — Ponnuru quotes several — believe that Roe greatly restricts second- and third-trimester abortions (it does not), or that overturning it would criminalize abortion nationwide (it would not). He gives a mordant account of the contortions engaged in by politicians seeking to straddle the issue, or to hold together coalitions whose components are fundamentally at odds on RTL topics — old-school white Roman Catholics plus feminist intellectuals, for example. Democratic office-seekers who are themselves Roman Catholic are in a particularly nasty bind here, and Ponnuru's scathing exposure of their agonized wrigglings and tongue-forkings left me almost — almost — feeling sorry for Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, and (later in the book) John Kerry.

The author then takes us through the grisly business of partial-birth abortion, presents some basic ethical arguments, with counter-rebuttals of the most common rebuttals, and concludes Part One with a historical survey that I found very interesting. What was the Common Law jurisprudence on abortion? How did people in pre-modern times regard the issue? I had never given a moment's thought to any of this, and all I know now is what this author has told me. His coverage might, for all I know, be highly selective; but this section is extensively footnoted with references to books and journals, so the reader who has more time and interest than I have can check the soundness of the author's case. Nobody, at any rate, can complain that Ponnuru has left them short of further reading matter.

(Here, however, I should like to register a grumble about the book's numbering of footnotes. The numbers start again at 1 for each chapter, so that you have to flip back to see which number chapter you are reading to get to the right footnote. It is much better to number the footnotes from 1 to n, all through the book, without regard to chapter breaks. This is harder for the author, because the addition of a footnote at a late stage in the preparation of the manuscript means that all subsequent ones, and their in-text tags, must be renumbered. As always in writing, however, what is harder for the author is easier for the reader, and the reader should come first. This is not particularly a complaint against Party of Death, as ninety percent of footnoted books follow this highly irritating practice. My own books are of course exceptions.)


Part Two opens with a discussion of euthanasia, with several references to the Schiavo case. To Ponnuru's credit, even he seems a little embarrassed by the freak show that surrounded Mrs. Schiavo's last days, and he spares us most of the details (which are anyway thoroughly covered, from both sides, in at least five recent books). Not that his embarrassment prevents the author from engaging in a dense flurry of those rhetorical sleights of hand I noted earlier. He tells us, to take one example from many, that Michael Schiavo won a $1.1 million settlement in a negligence suit against his wife's doctors, without also telling us that Mrs. Schiavo's parents fought like cats to get their hands on their daughter's estate; or that Mr. Schiavo offered (in writing, in documents deposited with officers of the court) to sign over that estate — which was anyway much diminished by legal bills — to a registered charity if his in-laws would withdraw their lawsuits; or for that matter that Mr. Schiavo was a well-paid working professional well able to support himself, while his in-laws were chronically broke, at least until the big RTL foundations showed up with checkbooks a-flapping. And of course Ponnuru does not mention the few seconds of misleading videotape, carefully selected from over four hours' worth, released (in violation of a court order!) by the in-laws to the media, and endlessly replayed on sensationalist TV news programs.

In fact, Ponnuru has nothing to say at all about the monstrous character assassination, carried out by utterly unscrupulous RTL propagandists, of a decent man who coped humanely and well with a terrible life calamity. Well, not quite nothing: "It cannot be denied that pro-lifers were guilty of some excesses," Ponnuru murmurs. Some excesses? I would say. Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik, circa 1960, offering a grudging admission that Stalin and his cronies might, just once or twice, have been a tad over-zealous in dealing with class enemies. Perhaps I should add here that after reading three (Schiavo, Schindler, and Eisenberg) of the above-mentioned five-or-so books, I came away more convinced than ever that 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.

The balance of Part Two deals with eugenics, embryonic stem cell research, the market in human organs, and infanticide. For me this was, as I have said, the most interesting part of the book, and it seems to me to offer some of the strongest ground for RTL-ers to fight from. I had not thought until reading Party of Death, for example, that there was much need to construct arguments against infanticide in modern America. Ponnuru persuades me that I was mistaken, though not that his arguments are necessarily the right ones. The taboo on infanticide, he made me reflect, is not a particularly universal one, even among civilized peoples. Infanticide was widely, lawfully, practiced in China within living memory; and the ancient Athenians, a very civilized people, exposed unwanted infants on the Acropolis. Could infanticide make a comeback? After reading Party of Death, I wouldn't rule out the possibility, though I think it remote.

In the matter of modern bioethics, Ponnuru could have made an even stronger case than he has done. Medical people — I write as a person who grew up surrounded by hospital gossip — naturally, from their daily exposure to suffering and death, develop a rather peculiar attitude to these matters, an attitude that might seem callous to outsiders. It isn't really, and medical professionals can be loving and kind-hearted people in their private lives, while yet dealing in a briskly unsentimental way with matters of life or death in their working hours. (Possibly some similar remarks might even apply to priests, who are also over-familiar with death and pain. See the court testimony of Father Gerard Murphy in Michael Schiavo's book.) For example: In my mother's time it was common practice on geriatric wards, if a patient died near the end of the Ward Sister's shift, to pack hot water bottles round the corpse, to keep him warm till the relief Sister came on. Then your shift would not be prolonged by all the paperwork, summoning of doctors, and so on, required when a death had occurred under your supervision. As my mother said, with logic that always seemed impeccable to me: "It makes no difference to him, poor soul." Similarly with doctors, who were of course quietly and humanely euthanizing patients for centuries, until the modern culture of relentless litigation, and the rise of the RTL busybodies, scared them off the practice, to a general increase in human suffering.

The RTL case to be made here, I think, is that this widespread medical mentality — cold-eyed and unillusioned, though rarely inhumane — is magnified and distorted by the bureaucratic superstructure of present-day medicine. The higher you go up the health-care bureaucracy, the further from the actual patient, the worse is the distortion, so that unspeakable things — the killing of people who wish to live — might indeed become more possible as health care becomes ever more bureaucratized. Doctors and nurses would still have to carry out the bureaucrats' decisions, of course; but I am not altogether confident, given the great financial and bureaucratic pressures involved, that they would be able to hold on to the humane good sense for which their professions, justly in my experience, have always been respected. There has never been a health-care system quite like the modern insurance-and-litigation-driven behemoths of today, and there is no telling where they may carry us.

Taking Party of Death as a whole, I think Ponnuru relies too much on slippery-slope arguments. Not every slope is slippery. Most of our social taboos are in fact surprisingly robust, even when perfectly arbitrary. Anglo-Saxon cultures are, I believe, in a minority in having a taboo against the eating of horseflesh; yet our regular consumption of pork, lamb, and beef does not seem to be pushing us down a slippery slope towards hippophagy, even though nobody much (except Bo Derek) would care if it did. Given the above-mentioned pressures on the medical profession, though, I think the euthanasia slope actually might be slippery, at least in potential. That is not in itself an argument against euthanasia, only an argument for great vigilance and care in that area. Ponnuru makes it an argument, of course, and I think it's a pity, from the RTL point of view, he didn't do more with this. He didn't, because he has other arguments that he prefers, arguments from abstract principles, which he much prefers to the untidy, relativistic, and hypocritical realities of human social life. "[Terri] Schiavo's death was surrounded by euphemisms," Ponnuru complains. Good heavens! — people are using euphemisms when talking about death? Whatever next? — the euphemizing of sex?

Ponnuru also fails to tackle one of the hard bioethical questions RTL-ers face. He of course deplores embryo-destructive stem cell research, and leaves the reader with the rather strong impression that such research is anyway pointless, that there is no prospect of it turning up any of the much-advertised "miracle cures." But what if it does? There is no reason why this research might not yield a sensational cure for some widely-feared disease or condition. Ponnuru of course hopes that it won't, and points out correctly that there is no immediate prospect of it doing so. But what if it does? If embryo-destructive stem cell research is, as Ponnuru plainly believes, a serious issue, then wishful thinking doesn't cut it as a serious response.


Part Three of Party of Death rounds off the discussions of RTL in the public (media, political) sphere, bits and pieces of which were covered earlier in the book as occasion demanded. Ponnuru is a seasoned observer of the Washington scene, and here he dons steel-capped boots and brass knuckles to give several current or recent political figures a thorough working-over. This is very entertaining for anyone who despises politicians, which is to say, for pretty much anyone. The book concludes with a stirring call — which I endorse! — for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. As the author says

The end of Roe would not hand pro-lifers victory in all the political debates over abortion policy. It would give them the right to have those debates in the first place.

Nothing wrong with that, so far as I can see. Even cults have a right to be heard. I would not like to see RTL views prevail; but I would rather see them prevail than see them stifled.

The best thing in this third part of the book is Chapter 17, which deals with public opinion about abortion, and offers telling insights. This chapter also shows Ponnuru the intellectual at his best. His purpose is to make the case that support for abortion is trending downwards. The actual evidence he offers, however, paints an ambiguous picture — largely because of the admirable honesty with which he offers it. He takes his pluses where he can find them ("characters in prime-time television shows almost never have abortions") while frankly admitting the minuses ("there isn't a pro-life majority … exactly").

What the poll numbers suggest to me is that the moral philosophy of the people of the United States is — as is, I would guess, that of people pretty much anywhere else — basically pagan, with a couple of thin coats of vague religiosity painted over it. We no longer smash sick people on the head with a rock, as I suppose our remote ancestors did, but invalids remain just as unpopular as they were back in the Paleolithic. Anyone who has endured a long confining illness knows this. Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:

Show me what angels feel.
Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

A corollary, though Ponnuru seems unaware of it, is that people who are obsessively interested in these topics seem, to the rest of us, a bit creepy. We may even find ourselves wondering which side, really, is the Party of Death. Ponnuru says that it is unjust to regard some instances of the human organism as less alive than others based on how we feel about them. (Another RTL-er once derided this approach to me, in conversation, as "Barry Manilow ethics" — the worth of another human life judged by our own feelings, wo wo wo feelings … I offer this designation for Ramesh Ponnuru's future use, free of charge.) Unfortunately most of us do so judge; and feelings, wo wo wo feelings, are a much more common foundation for our social taboos than are Natural Law principles, or indeed any abstract principles at all. Why, if a woman's husband dies, should she not use his corpse for garden mulch, or serve it up with mashed potatoes and collard greens for dinner? I cannot think of any reason well rooted in pure philosophy, though there might be a public health issue to be addressed. We do not do such things because of the disgust we feel — we feel — at the mistreatment of human corpses.

We likewise feel that an adult woman's life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings — yes, our feelings — about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.


I mentioned Natural Law there because one very striking feature of Party of Death is that it barely mentions religion at all. Ponnuru is not, he insists, arguing from religious grounds, but from the Lockeian principles on which our nation was founded. The key passages here are in Chapter 8 ("Silencing Dissent"), and I think this chapter is the one that needs to be read with closest attention. Ponnuru is subtle here — I think I will go ahead and say "jesuitical" — and it is plain that he has thought, and read, deeply in ethical philosophy. Listen:

Liberals tend to assume, without realizing it, that the rational view of any controversial moral issue is likely to be the one that most non-religious people take. The idea that a religious tradition could strengthen people's reason — could help them reach rationally sound conclusions they might not otherwise reach, and stick to them when there may be reasons of emotion or self-interest not to do so — rarely occurs to them.

That is very well said, and true. Nobody even glancingly acquainted with the history of the last quarter-millenium would assert that you can arrive at a rational social order by dumping religion overboard. My own estimate of the power of reason in human affairs is, I am willing to bet, a lot smaller than Ponnuru's — it is, I think, smaller than that of anyone I have ever met — and I am sure that poor beleaguered reason needs all the help it can get. A sophisticated religious belief (I am not speaking of shamanism or voodoo) can indeed supply an organizing principle within which reason might usefully operate, "might" being of course the key word there.

Yet it remains the case that our Constitution does not permit the framing of laws based on the peculiar tenets of any religion or sect, and Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief. The philosophical passages strictly follow the Golden Rule of religious apologetics, which is: The conclusion is known in advance, and the task of the intellectual is to erect supporting arguments. It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself is a communicant. Yet that is the case, very nearly, with Party of Death. Remarkable! What if, after all that intellectual work, all that propositional algebra, all those elegant syllogisms, the author had come to the conclusion that abortion was not such a bad thing after all? I suppose he would have been plunged into severe psychic distress. Fortunately there was never the slightest chance of this happening.

Ponnuru's distancing himself from religion is, in fact, a bit disingenuous. It is certainly the case, as he tells us, that RTL includes some committed and energetic agnostics, though they are usually working one particular narrow aspect of the portfolio. Diane Coleman of the anti-euthanasia group Not Dead Yet is an instance — there is a good interview with her in Jon Eisenberg's book Using Terri. The indisputable fact remains, though, that whenever one finds oneself in a room full of RTL-ers they turn out to be a well-nigh solid phalanx of devout Christians, a mix of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. (Ponnuru does one of his rhetorical card-flips here, telling us that "The opponents [of embryo-destructive research] are often evangelicals and Catholics." Aye, and men who come home drunk to their wives are often those with a fondness for liquor.) The same thing applies, incidentally to the "Intelligent Design" movement, though there the proportions in the mix are somewhat different. The ID-ers likewise proudly advertise the odd nonbeliever who has wandered into their ranks. When tested to courtroom standards of evidence, however, "Intelligent Design" has been unmasked as a religious movement, the token agnostic or two notwithstanding. I am sure the same would happen with RTL. 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. 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.

And while it is true that Natural Law philosophy has been a key source for U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, it by no means follows that Natural Law arguments will, or should, invariably win our public debates, even our Constitutional debates. If, from the principles of Natural Law, it ineluctably follows that women who discover that they are bearing Down Syndrome fetuses should not be allowed to abort those fetuses, then I can assure Ramesh Ponnuru that Natural Law principles will be tossed out of the window by every juridical authority in the land, so long as we remain a democracy. And that is as it should be.


I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime's misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and — I do not doubt it — sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach! — one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

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. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

I think at last it is largely a matter of temperament. Ponnuru has given his chapter on euthanasia the title "The Doctor Will Kill You Now." I imagine the author meant this to have shock value. He plainly finds atrocious the notion of a doctor — a healer! — killing someone. I can't say I agree. I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would respond to "The doctor will kill you now" with "Thank God!" either on my own behalf or a loved one's. I suppose this, by Ponnuru's standards and definitions, puts me in the Party of Death. It depends what you look for from life, and from the great cold cosmos — as I said, just a matter of temperament, really. Some of us are RTL absolutists: "You can't do that to a living human being!" Some of us are personal autonomy absolutists: "Don't tell me what to do with my own body!" Most of us are too unintellectual to be consistently absolutist about anything. We just favor one side or the other, more or less strongly. 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.

[Following publication of this review, Ramesh and I had some exchanges at NRO, reproduced here.]