Publishers will tell anyone who asks that books on abortion are typically hard to sell. (I know, I've written two that earned royalties fit for a duke-but I'm glad I did them.) Most people don't want to read about the gruesome subject, and some feel that after two centuries of considerable abortion in America-with massive numbers during the last 34 years of national legality-not much more needs to be said.
So give National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru credit for writing a new abortion book, and give Regnery credit for publishing it-and for uniting the abortion genre with one that has been successful for the company, the anti-liberal political genre. The title and subtitle-The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life-tell it all, except for one aspect: Ponnuru writes well.
WORLD: Why has it taken liberals so long to recognize that the Democrats' pro-abortion stance led to a realignment of American politics, and not in their favor?
PONNURU: For many years, liberals believed that support for abortion gained them votes, especially among suburban women. But in fact, social liberalism has been a net loser in American politics. Social issues brought affluent voters into the liberal coalition, but their numbers were dwarfed by the lunch-pail social conservatives the liberals lost. And by the time the cost of abortion advocacy became clear, it had become too central to liberalism to abandon. Support for abortion and social liberalism is the emotional core of modern liberalism, in the way that suspicion of corporate power was the core of an older, and more popular, liberalism.
WORLD: Some defenders of abortion are crooning about their South Dakota victory. Will that affect their long-held faith that they are better off keeping the issue within the courtroom?
PONNURU: Sophisticated defenders of abortion understand that the courts have given them far more than the public ever would. South Dakotans voted against a ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest. The pro-abortion side highlighted the cases of rape and incest, and they were smart to do that. If the campaign had been about the other 99 percent of abortions, they would have lost. If it had been about third-trimester abortions, which the courts have made an effective constitutional right, they would have lost very badly.
The courts have maintained a highly permissive abortion regime. As a result abortion is legal at any stage of pregnancy for essentially any reason, even in our most pro-life states. If the issue goes back to the public, pro-lifers can only gain ground; and I think a lot of pro-abortionists understand that.
WORLD: So you recommend gaining ground through an incrementalist pro-life strategy . . .
PONNURU: Our goal has to be every child protected in law and welcomed in life. But when we made a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution the centerpiece of our legislative strategy, we were highlighting an issue where the public sides with the abortion lobby. An incremental strategy, focusing on those aspects of the abortion license that arouse the most public revulsion, has allowed us to marginalize the pro-abortion ideologues and show the public how extreme they are. An incremental strategy has brought the abortion rate down, and prepared the political ground for the day when we can bring it down some more.
WORLD: Republicans made some small legislative gains-how will the Democratic takeover of Congress affect the abortion debate?
PONNURU: Pro-lifers have managed over the years to score some policy victories by putting "riders," or amendments, on spending bills. I expect that we are going to have to fight attempts to get rid of these amendments. For example, the abortion lobby hates the "Mexico City" policy, initially adopted by Ronald Reagan. It prevents foreign aid from going to organizations that promote or perform abortion overseas. A lot of Democrats want that funding, and they are eventually going to make an issue out of it. Other riders keep military facilities from doing abortions and make it impossible for the biotech industry to put patents on human life. We're going to have to fight all of those fights.
If there is another vacancy on the Supreme Court, and the president nominates a judicial conservative, we can expect much more opposition than John Roberts or Samuel Alito got. The left will go all out to protect Roe. The worst thing the president could do is to preemptively surrender by putting up a weak nominee.
WORLD: But Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean insists, "We're not the party of abortion." Is this mere propaganda, or has he done something to make that more than words?
PONNURU: He has done three things. First, he has tried to pry pro-lifers away from the Republican party by claiming, falsely, that the abortion rate has gone up under President Bush. Second, he has attempted to avoid the words abortion and choice, instead saying that he favors letting women make their own health-care decisions. He says he does not think abortion is a "good thing." This is, of course, the same old "personally opposed" position that Democrats have taken for a generation.
Third, he has said that Democrats should run pro-lifers, at least when they are running against Republicans who are even more pro-life. So, for example, he told liberals that they should put up with a pro-life candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Robert Casey Jr., because they would prefer to have him voting on judges rather than the incumbent, Rick Santorum. In essence, the argument was: Better to have a senator who merely votes pro-life rather than one who would actually work to make it possible to restrict abortion.
WORLD: And then there's Hillary Clinton. She's attempting to show that she's a moderate on abortion, right?
PONNURU: Sen. Clinton's strategy is to say that she wants to find common ground with pro-lifers and to bring down the abortion rate, while counting on the press not to remind anyone of her down-the-line pro-abortion voting record. She has consistently favored taxpayer funding for abortion, third-trimester abortion, and partial-birth abortion, and opposed parental-consent laws. On these issues, even a lot of people who consider themselves pro-choice are less extreme than she is.
So far, her strategy has been paying off: The press isn't calling her on it. But unless she actually adjusts her policies, I think abortion is going to be a liability for her in the end.
WORLD: And what about Sen. Harry Reid, often identified as a moderate pro-lifer? Didn't he show himself to be on NOW's leash during the John Roberts nomination process?
PONNURU: Sen. Reid's pro-life position has indeed been getting more and more moderate, and if it continues to moderate it may disappear entirely. He will vote for pro-life bills, but only after trying to water them down.
The reason is the tight grip the pro-abortion left has on his party. In 2005, he sent President Bush a list of Supreme Court nominees he would find unacceptable. The president nominated John Roberts, who wasn't on Reid's hit list. But Reid then met with 40 liberal activists, and afterward he said he'd vote against Roberts. The head of NOW told The New York Times: "He got the message loud and clear, didn't he?"
WORLD: Of course, maybe Democrats are getting the voters' message loud and clear: Don't be the party of death. They want to appeal to pro-life voters, and we should be open to measuring and applauding their successes if they come through. So how do we measure their success or failure? What would make the Democrats' record at the end of 2007 a good one or a bad one?
PONNURU: One question will be, as I mentioned earlier, whether those pro-life policies are reversed. And the larger question is whether pro-life Democrats let themselves get taken for a ride. Some of them have been out in the cold so long that they may be tempted to settle for little more than cosmetic change from their party's leadership. If the new House leadership bottles up common-sense pro-life legislation on parental consent or unborn children's pain, they need to be willing to force the issue to a floor vote. That includes the six new pro-life Democratic members of the House.
WORLD: Many of us have been praying for years for an end of the Roe v. Wade regime, but some have thought that it would end with a big pro-life bang. I think you're right in projecting "a surprising return to political moderation," but why do you think that would happen?
PONNURU: Abortion would become an issue of public policy to be decided by the political process. Pro-lifers would not be handed victory in the debates over it, but merely given the right to engage in those debates in the first place. Roe polarizes the debate by making it all-or-nothing. When Roe goes, you move to a debate about under what circumstances abortion should be allowed, which allows for a greater variety of positions and for at least temporary compromise. And if the issue were to be decided, again at least temporarily, on a state-by-state basis, the political parties would not have to line up against each other in a culture war. It would become easier for a pro-life Democrat to have a political career without compromising his beliefs.
WORLD: Final question: What do you say to those who think that titling your book The Party of Death is overkill?
PONNURU: I would urge them to read the book to see what the title means, and not just assume that they already know. My book does not condemn all Democrats: It notes that some pro-life Democrats have withstood enormous pressure to keep their witness, and it argues that Democrats would have a lasting majority in this country if they moved back toward pro-lifers. My book doesn't condemn all supporters of legal abortion, either. From its first words to its last, it recognizes that many people support legal abortion because they think that in some cases it is the least bad response to tragic situations. But I argue that this is a mistake, and it ends up leading to a comprehensive devaluation of inconvenient life.