The Party Of Death: A Review

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Some weeks ago, I commented on a post that JivinJ had made about The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, a new book by Ramesh Ponnuru. A number of pro-choice bloggers were working themselves into a lather about the book's title, specifically about the supposed identification of the Democrats as the Party of Death (PoD, for short). Without anything other than the book's title, I thought these complaints showed poor reading comprehension. More importantly, I thought that people should be willing to wait until the book was available before presuming to criticize it.

To my surprise, Ramesh read my post and offered me a copy of his book. I love books; how could I refuse? For the attentive readers, this marks the very first tangible reward that I have received for my blogging. For the suspicious readers, I will point out that the book was offered with no strings attached. I made no promises of a glowing review or anything else. I simply told Ramesh that I would read the book and probably blog something about it.

Well, I've now read the book, and I can say two things:

  1. The Democrats aren't the PoD, but rather a wholly-owned subsidiary thereof.

  2. This book deserves a glowing review, which I am now going to write.


On page 3 of his introduction, Ramesh identifies himself as someone who once supported "legal abortion, or euthanasia, or both." Only someone who has seen both sides of these struggles could have written a book like The Party of Death. One of the major themes of the book, proven over and over again, is that death refuses to be confined to whatever reasonable limits we may wish to establish. Whether the death-in-question is abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, or any other such spectre, the reasonable limits are inevitably eroded until the spectre has become our master. This valuable perspective is not something that one would expect from someone who had always been 100% pro-life, but rather from someone who had once believed in these limits until he saw them crossed.

But let me deal with the pro-choice bloggers' complaints before I go any further. The Democrats are not the Party of Death. Satisfied? On page 3 of his introduction, Ramesh clearly states:

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. The party of death has unwitting allies, too, just as it always has. Someone who reluctantly supports euthanasia to spare the dying from further suffering surely does not intend to advance a comprehensive agenda to undermine the protection of human life. Yet that is the effect, however modest, of her support.

In this respect, we can surely count Senators Specter and Hatch, two prominent Republicans, as PoD supporters. You may remember Senator Specter from the confirmation hearings of both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. During those hearings, Senator Specter (as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee) put an enormous amount of effort into stating his own opinion of Roe v. Wade as "settled" law and a super-precedent. If one took Senator Specter's words seriously, one might suspect that the right to abortion is actually engraved (not merely written!) into the Constitution ... which it obviously is not. Meanwhile, Senator Hatch has made his own contributions to the PoD with his support of embryonic stem-cell research, famously stating that life does not begin in a petri dish. Following Senator Hatch's illogic, one wonders if he considers IVF-conceived children to be alive at all?

The Party of Death is a loose and shifting coalition of people and organizations that are working together to redefine humanity in ways that will allow us to kill our fellow human beings without suffering any penalties, either legal or moral. So far, their targets have been human beings at either end of life's spectrum. This is the commonality that links pro-choicers with supporters of euthanasia. In both cases, a human being is killed. In both cases, the PoD is ready to assure us that we aren't really killing human beings. Less-sophisticated PoD arguments use the tried-and-true "just a clump of cells" line. More-sophisticated arguments revolve around the concept of personhood, which is essentially a philosopher's way of claiming that a human life may not be entitled to human rights. In fact, Ramesh even devotes a whole chapter to "The Politics of Personhood," in which he summarizes the inherent problems with such reasoning:

We have developed ways of talking that enable us to pretend that this point [the death of a human organism] can be blinked away. In the case of abortion and embryo research, the main technique is to suggest that there is some great mystery about "when life begins," and that this alleged question is a religious or philosophical one. Yet science has long since solved the mystery. From conception onward, what exists is a distinct organism of the human species. The philosophical question is what we make of that fact. To jumble these issues together – the essentially scientific issue of categorizing an embryo as human and living, and the moral question of whether it follows from that categorization that it has a right to life – is a logical error.

This same technique, in which certain human beings are supposed to be non-human, sub-human, or somehow other-than-human, is used at both ends of life. It is applied equally to both embryoes and terminally-ill people, to a fetus and to a person suffering chronic pain. If your "quality of life" is insufficient, or if you don't meet the ever-shifting standards for personhood, then the PoD is there to explain that you are not entitled to human rights. In fact, you're probably better off dead.

There are many groups within the PoD. Chapter 2, "Realignment," describes how the PoD effectively assimilated the Democratic Party. It's a brilliant chapter. Ramesh opens with an eloquent pro-life quote from Jesse Jackson, then goes on to describe the pro-life origins of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Richard Durbin, Dick Gephardt, and even (gasp!) Ted Kennedy. Unfortunately, the Democrats gradually abandoned the hard task of advocating for the unborn in favor of carrying the PoD's message. Ramesh notes the irony:

It was the party of the little guy. Yet somehow it turned its back on the littlest guy of all.

The nadir of the Democrats' descent into the PoD's clutches is chronicled on pages 31 and 32, in which Ramesh tells his readers about the DNC's decision to ostracize Bob Casey in 1992. With the excommunication of the last prominent pro-life Democrat, the PoD's takeover was complete.

Or was it? Skip ahead to Chapter 18, "Pro-Life Democrats," to see the rebellion of those who want to free Democratic ideals from the PoD. While their goals are noble, they are defintely fighting an uphill battle. Reading the chapter, I was reminded of the Star Wars movies (the originals, not the lame "prequels"), in which a ragtag Rebel Alliance fights to free the galaxy from the grip of an evil Empire. Democrats for Life should just consider themselves lucky that the PoD powers-that-be don't have a Death Star at their disposal. Chapter 18 also briefly mentions other non-typical pro-life groups (that I have previously mentioned in my blog) such as Feminists for Life. But the best quote in the chapter is about PLAGAL:

The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians ("Human rights start when human life begins!") keeps the culture warriors confused just by existing.

As the Man Himself might say, "Heh. Indeed."

Much of The Party of Death is a horrifying and depressing tale of how our country, which was founded as a great triumph of human rights and human dignity, has now turned its back on its origins by deciding that some people aren't human. (Or maybe it's that some humans aren't people; I can never be sure where that line is supposed to be drawn.) Pro-lifers (and maybe a few pro-choicers) who read Ramesh's detailed analysis of the PoD and its multifaceted assault on humanity might well be moved to tears at certain points in the text. The tears will not come from Ramesh's writing style – which is quick, clever, and generally focused on the facts – but from the actual statements and facts that he has chronicled. As a former feminist, one of the passages that moved me most strongly was the story of Tracy Marciniak. Tracy had been pregnant with her son Zachariah. She was five days away from her expected delivery date when her estranged husband assaulted her. Tracy was gravely injured in the attack, but she survived. Little Zachariah was killed. Her son's death motivated Tracy, who is herself pro-choice, to become an advocate on behalf of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. The responses that she received from the traditional defenders of womanhood were horrifying:

She said at that time that she couldn't understand why pro-choice groups and lawmakers have fought her. "My son was five days from full-term, and for them to tell me that my son was nothing, it's just wrong. Where were my child's rights when he was ripped from my womb and killed, and I was told he was nothing?"

To recap: Tracy was savagely assaulted by an abusive husband. Her child, a "child of choice," was killed by the assault. Yet the only people who were willing to validate Tracy's loss and aid her quest for justice were ... those wicked misogynists in the anti-choice movement. I'm tempted to reactivate my membership in NOW, just so I'll have a new membership card to burn.

Fortunately, just when you're about to decide that humanity isn't worth saving and we should hitch a ride on the next comet, Ramesh turns the corner with what are (in my opinion) the most important chapters of the book. Chapter 17, "The Tide Turns," describes how the abortion-rights movement has reached its peak and begun its decline. Ramesh analyzes American polls about abortion and establishes why there is no "pro-choice majority," not in the way that NARAL & Company have claimed, and there never has been. (Sadly, it's not clear that there is a strong pro-life majority either, even though there is clear majority support for a wide range of restrictions on abortion.) Chapter 17 also references the role that advancing medical technology has played in changing people's perceptions of the unborn, an observation with which I agree completely. Most interestingly, Ramesh also draws in the changing vocabulary of pro-choice politicians and organizations to prove his point:

Even the abortion lobby distanced itself from the word [abortion]. NARAL, the leading group, began its life in 1969 as the "National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws." After Roe it became the "National Abortion Rights Action League." The sidelining of abortion began in 1993, when the group became the "National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League." In 2003, it adopted its current official name: "NARAL Pro-Choice America." The letters "NARAL" literally no longer stand for anything. Champions of free speech, of freedom of religion, or of the right to own guns unfurl their banners proudly. Abortion is the right that dare not speak its name.

As a former pro-choice activist, I will mention that Ramesh could have used other examples. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) originally began as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR). Out of all of the leading pro-choice organizations, the only one that still uses the word "abortion" in its name is the National Abortion Federation (NAF). On the other hand, the NAF is literally a professional association for abortionists, so they have more reason to keep the word.

At this point in the review, I should note the one significant omission in The Party of Death. Sadly, Ramesh does not seem to mention the role of post-abortion regret, other than to note the conversion of Norma McCorvey (AKA "Roe"). Like Norma, many of today's pro-lifers are people who have been scarred by personal experiences with abortion. They are women who have aborted, fathers who lost their children to abortion, and former abortion workers. (There is also a former clinic escort, although those rumors haven't been confirmed.) These post-abortive pro-lifers represent a new phase in the pro-life movement. Our personal experiences give us a different perspective from other pro-lifers. "Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt." We have tasted the abortion's bitter fruit, and we want to spare anyone else from following in our footsteps. Having experienced the PoD's savage cruelty for ourselves, we now have a deeply-personal reason to commit ourselves to slaying the Beast.

Politically, the efforts of post-abortive pro-lifers are changing the debate. The awakening of post-abortion regret is the rightful companion to advanced medical technology in turning the tide against the PoD. Just as advanced medical technology makes it harder to deny the humanity of unborn children, the efforts of post-abortive pro-lifers to publicize their regret make it less and less clear that abortion is the great salvation for women that we were promised it would be. When you combine these two viewpoints, it becomes clear that legal abortion exacts an impossibly-high price for a dubious benefit and should rightly be rejected as a matter of public policy. I was disappointed that Ramesh did not mention post-abortive pro-lifers, but then again, nobody is perfect. It's still a great book.

As previously mentioned, Chapter 18 continues the upward trend by citing the reappearance of pro-life Democrats. Chapter 19, "Dancing with Death," returns to a theme that Ramesh briefly mentioned in Chapter 17: the fascinating trend among leading Democratic politicians to distance themselves from abortion. John Kerry tried to tiptoe around abortion during the 2004 campaigns, and it got him nowhere. After the election, Kerry famously told a meeting of Democratic strategists that Democrats needed to be clearer that "they didn't like abortion," and that they needed to be more welcoming of pro-lifers. My favorite of Ramesh's quotes in this chapter comes from Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager:

"All these issues that put us into the extreme and not the mainstream really hurt us with the heartland of the country. Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies."

Let's see ... you support every possible measure that would enable people to kill unborn children ... and you oppose every possible measure that might prohibit or even discourage people from killing unborn children ... and now you're shocked that people might think you're in favor of killing unborn children? I'm totally baffled how that could have happened! Today's Democrats are trapped between an American public that is less tolerant of abortion-on-demand and an entrenched PoD that is less tolerant of backsliding than the most strident Baptist preacher. Perhaps Hillary Clinton has the answer to the Democrats' dilemna, and Ramesh spends a great deal of time & effort to analyze her answer. In the end, Hillary's insight seems to mean that the Democrats should remain the party of abortion-on-demand ("Safe, Legal, and Subsidized"), but they should be very sad about it. Something like that, anyway ... read the book to get his full analysis.

The Party of Death reaches its powerful conclusion in Chapter 20, "Life after Roe." Ramesh starts by casting serious doubt on the conventional wisdom that overturning Roe would be the end of the pro-life movement, the Republican party, or both. Many pundits, including pro-choicers and even some pro-lifers, have opined that overturning Roe would result in some massive backlash among suburban women. This supposed backlash would reverse all pro-life gains, enact sweeping protections for legal abortion (maybe even a Constitutional amendment!), and send all Republican politicians into early retirement. In fact, there are many credible reasons to believe that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and Ramesh provides all of those reasons. Then, he turns his attention to theorizing what a post-Roe America would look like. Many other pro-life thinkers have attempted the same thing, but Ramesh's take is well worth reading. He is sensible without being cynical, and hopeful without being foolishly optimistic. Possibly the best thing that I can say about his vision of a post-Roe America is that I think his predictions will be validated by future generations' political-science textbooks. When that happens, I hope he will be given the credit that he deserves. At the risk of spoiling the ending, Ramesh's conclusion is just too good for me to not reprint it here:

Most Americans already know that abortion is wrong. If Roe falls – when it falls – pro-lifers will be able to demonstrate another truth about abortion: We can live without it.

Amen.


There's a lot in The Party of Death. I cannot give this book a proper treatment in a review, not even a review as long-winded as this one. By now, I hope my opinion is clear: Read this book. If you are a pro-lifer, Ramesh will confirm your convictions, educate you about the struggle against death, and give you encouragement for the future. If you are a pro-choicer, you will gain valuable insight into how pro-lifers really think, as opposed to the stereotypes of "anti-choicers" that you already think you know. If you are somewhere in the middle, you will be moved to sympathy with the pro-life cause, even if you don't actually become a pro-lifer yourself. Everyone has something to gain from this book.

As I hinted in the previous paragraph, I actually have a lot more to say about The Party of Death. Keep an eye out for citations and references in future posts! Most especially, Ramesh has presented some compelling arguments about the Terri Schiavo case in Chapter 10, "The Doctor Will Kill You Now: Euthanasia Advances." As long-time readers know, I have been on both sides of that issue. At first, I joined with other pro-lifers to condemn the removal of Terri's feeding tube. By the end of her life, I had changed my position, and I am now a reluctant supporter of the decision to allow Michael Schiavo to request the tube's removal. Ramesh has given me reasons to reconsider my conclusions, and I intend to explore those reasons in a future post.

Final note: Pay close attention to the endnotes! Endnote #11 for Chapter 3, which refers to journalist Ellen Goodman's parrotting of inflated statistics about illegal abortion deaths, cites my blogmothers at AfterAbortion for their involvement in correcting Goodman. Way to go, Emily & Annie!

Final final note: I wrote this review during several commutes. (I ride a bus to and from work.) Yesterday evening, as the bus stopped to let a number of people off to go home, one of the disembarking passengers spotted The Party of Death in my hands. He spun around in a classic double-take, looked straight at me, and said, "Great book! That's a really great book!" If you don't want to take my word for it (and you should!), then perhaps you'll be convinced by some anonymous guy on my commuter bus. It's a great book!

(cross-posted to Naaman the Ex-Leper)

4 Comments

Excellent review! I received my copy late last week and am anxious to finish. I can say that the book serves Americans well and provides a depth of insight that is often lacking on our debates on life issues.

Naaman, you beat me to it! I just read Ramesh's book yesterday (had a sick day), and was hoping to get to commenting on it this weekend!

Excellent review.

As for "Ramesh does not seem to mention the role of post-abortion regret" and "Politically, the efforts of post-abortive pro-lifers are changing the debate", it's been suggested to me that that's the book I should be writing...and now...

Feedback welcome from all and any, and prayers too, to discern if this is what the Man Upstairs really has in mind for me, right now, or if it's just what I would like to do...(AND thanks for the mention of the endnote and the compliment...blogmothers, eh? Has a nice ring to it! 8) )

As long-time readers know, I have been on both sides of that issue. At first, I joined with other pro-lifers to condemn the removal of Terri's feeding tube. By the end of her life, I had changed my position, and I am now a reluctant supporter of the decision to allow Michael Schiavo to request the tube's removal. Ramesh has given me reasons to reconsider my conclusions, and I intend to explore those reasons in a future post.

I'm tempted to reactivate my membership in NOW

As a former pro-choice activist,

As a former feminist

You certainly are weak-minded. I expect you'll be in the pro-death camp (with many "nuances" in your support, no doubt) shortly after you read another book steeped in the proper Hegelian dialectic.

"I have strong convictions! And if you don't like those... well, I can change them!"

John, I'm unsure about something. Are you a pro-choice troll attacking me for my past, or are you a fellow pro-lifer who thinks that I don't meet your standard?

My support for life is not "nuanced," and I'm a bit offended by the accusation. I believe that all human life is a gift from God. Furthermore, I believe that a classically-liberal (unlike modern "liberalism") requires our civil rights to embrace all human beings as worthy of equal protection under the law.




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