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Straight Talk Expression

There's still a chance for honest discourse about abortion and Roe.

By 5.3.06

The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life
by Ramesh Ponnuru
(Regnery, 320 pages, $27.95)

"What are you reading?" asked the 30ish lady seated next to me on the bus.

This? Just, ah, a book...

"Really? What's it about?"

Ummm, politics.

"Can I see?"

I hand over my copy of Ramesh Ponnuru's The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts and the Disregard for Human Life. She glances at the front of the book jacket and frowns. She turns it over and glances at the blurbs on the back: Rush Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, Peggy Noonan, etc.

"Interesting," she says as she hands it back.

You appear to be having an unexpressed thought, I say.

"Interesting," she repeats, icily.

End of conversation.

MORE THAN 30 YEARS AFTER Roe v. Wade supposedly settled the matter, abortion remains an emotionally charged issue. Nothing is more guaranteed to turn a pleasant social occasion or a friendly office chat into an awkward silence. Hard-core Washington political junkies tend to avoid the topic. Even abortion rights supporters almost never use the "a-word."

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru boldly casts aside this social taboo with The Party of Death, an examination of abortion and related "culture of life" issues such as euthanasia, stem cell research and cloning from the pro-life perspective.

It is a brilliant polemic: sharply written and passionately argued. It is also -- despite the rather melodramatic title -- about as calm and sober-minded an examination of the legal issues, moral questions and practical politics surrounding these issues as you're likely to find. (A related "life" issue, the death penalty, is discussed only in passing, though Ponnuru does say he opposes that too.)

A Catholic, Ponnuru nevertheless avoids religious language or appeals and instead frames his argument in almost purely secular terms. He earnestly wants to reach beyond the conservative echo chamber.

"We all have close friends and beloved relatives -- I certainly do -- who support legal abortion. Or euthanasia, or both," he writes. "I hope that this book speaks to them with an honesty that does not seek to wound, but with a love that dares not to refuse the truth."

It's an uncompromising argument, though: not only is legal abortion wrong because it kills unborn life, Ponnuru says, but its existence is now weakening legal protections for the disabled, the sick, the elderly, and the depressed, hence his title.

Anybody who remembers the controversy over Terri Schiavo and the passion with which many -- a majority, according to the polls -- argued for having her feeding tube pulled can see he's on to something.

THE GOOD NEWS, HE SAYS, is that there is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs. Being pro-life is not only morally right, Ponnuru argues, but good politics as well. Regular readers of his columns in National Review will, of course, already be familiar with these arguments. For the rest, the book will be a real eye-opener because so much of the conventional wisdom on these issues is rarely challenged. He's especially good at dismantling the arguments that being identified as the pro-life party has been a drag on Republicans.

The occasional dash of droll humor helps. Regarding Democrat Dennis Kucinich's abrupt conversion to the pro-choice side during his 2004 presidential bid, Ponnuru says, "It's a sad day when a man is corrupted by power he is never going to have."

The question is, can anything at this point change people's minds? Or are these subjects that people avoid because they literally don't want to think about it?

At one point in the book Ponnuru accuses Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of having "brazened through the contradiction" in his stance on stem-cell research. Maybe so, but he's hardly alone. Brazening through the contradictions on these issues is what most people do.

Polls often show majorities opposed to abortion and in favor of the Roe decision. It would seem to be impossible, but there it is. This leads Ponnuru to conclude: "The public has some ambivalence about the subject of abortion, along with, perhaps, a reluctance to think it through in detail."

It may be that one reason why many moderate voters sometimes react negatively to pro-lifers is that the latter often force moderates to have to "think through in detail" these subjects when they really don't want to. That's bound to cause a backlash, as the Schiavo case illustrated. Many people simply resented the fact that pro-lifers forced that issue onto the evening news.

AS PONNURU ONCE NOTED in National Review, the pro-choicers have benefited ever since Roe simply from being the party of the status quo. People who just want to forget the subject and "move on" are in effect on the pro-choicers' side.

For the left, it is doubtful that any argument can win them over. "The issue is whether a woman has a right to make up her own mind about her health care," Howard Dean is quoted as saying. "I think Republicans are intrusive and they invade people's privacy, and they don't have a right to do that."

Ponnuru uses the quote to refute claims that Democrats have softened or changed on abortion. What he doesn't really address is that it is a strong argument on its own terms, one that can win over even those with qualms about abortion.

His solution -- and advice to other pro-lifers -- is to take it slowly and work on the minor victories. "Of course it is true that a national ban on abortion cannot be obtained now," he writes. "But it is not futile to pursue an incremental strategy that improves the laws and culture bit by bit."

In other words, the battles of the last 30 years may only have been a warm-up.

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.