Life Beyond the Party

March 24, 2008

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Life Beyond the Party

Of all the candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, only one took the time to address the 35th-annual March for Life on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. On the day of the march, this candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, received the endorsement of Norma McCorvey, the eponymous “Jane Roe” of 1974, who since the verdict converted to Catholicism and become a pro-life activist. The endorsement was big news, but it received nary a notice from most of the anti-abortion conservative press.

I was working for the Paul campaign at the time and sent National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, author of the abortion treatise The Party of Death, an e-mail informing him of the story. “Considering your expertise on life issues and your mention of the other Ron Paul news of the day,” I wrote,  “I was wondering whether you might post your thoughts on Norma McCorvey’s endorsement of Dr. Paul today. Dr. Paul also addressed the March for Life—I believe he was the only presidential contender to do so.” Ponnuru had earlier mentioned Ron Paul’s endorsement by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Dr. Paul’s statement comparing the PATRIOT Act (which Ponnuru supports) to Jim Crow. But he chose not to discuss the McCorvey endorsement or the March for Life speech.


One should not read too much into that, but it is fair to say that pro-life, antiwar conservatives like Ron Paul pose a problem for pro-war, anti-abortion types like Ponnuru. The antiwar, pro-life Right doesn’t fit the narrative that hawks and neocons have built over the past six or seven years. What is that narrative? Essays by Joseph Bottum in First Things and James Hitchcock in the Human Life Review reveal the outline: neocons want to co-opt pro-lifers by convincing them that the bloodshed involved in wars of choice is not inconsistent with an ethic of life that rejects abortion and euthanasia; and the neocons and their hawk allies want to paint antiwar conservatives like Joe Sobran and Paul Likoudis as soft on abortion for supporting antiwar, pro-abortion candidates like Virginia Sen. James Webb. Bottum made the first half of the argument in his 2005 essay “The New Fusionism.” Hitchcock made the latter half a year later in his “Abortion and the ‘Catholic Right.’” (Love those scare quotes—as if there were any uncertainty about whether Joe Sobran is on the Right.)

Ponnuru plays a crucial role in the effort to annex pro-lifers to neoconservatism as well. To his credit, he hasn’t attacked the anti-abortion credentials of paleoconservatives— instead, he vouches for the good faith of pro-abortion neocons like David Frum and backs up Frum’s calumnies against the patriotism of antiwar conservatives.  But the more important contribution Ponnuru makes to the fight for the pro-life movement is to elaborate an abstract, universalist, rights-based foundation for an anti-abortion philosophy. Such a foundation, which bypasses religion and tradition, is more palatable to neoconservatives and the secular Left than are religiously-grounded, traditionalist objections to abortion. Ponnuru’s philosophy also takes us halfway toward a justification for opposing abortion that could also justify wars for democracy—all in the name of human rights. Though as we shall see, the Rights of Man do not lead where Ponnuru would like us to believe they do.

On the face of it, one would think that pro-lifers—who are moved by compassion for innocent human life and in many cases even oppose the taking of not-so-innocent human life—would be against wars of choice such as the one in Iraq. Such wars entail not only the deaths of soldiers on both sides and what is euphemistically called “collateral damage”—dead innocents—but they can also destroy public order and thereby lead to even greater slaughter, which is exactly what has happened in Iraq. American intervention there has set off a slow-motion civil war.


The Catholic Church, one of the strongest and most outspoken pro-life institutions worldwide, has been forthright in condemning the Iraq adventure. Yet pro-life Catholic conservatives would hardly know that from reading Catholic-inflected conservative magazines like First Things or National Review. From those sources, they will only hear the likes of George Weigel and Michael Novak complaining about Vatican bureaucrats who just don’t have the moral clarity to support the invasion and occupation of the Middle East. The pope himself has signaled his thought on the matter clearly enough, but Catholic hawks refuse to relay that signal to their readers—let alone show how it relates to the Church’s teaching on other life matters, such as abortion.

(Catholic neocons often argue, rightly, that while the Church opposes abortion in all instances, war may be either just and licit or unjust and illicit. But this does not speak to the bigger question: was the Iraq War just? Unjust wars must be opposed in all cases just as abortion must be.)

So despite what one might expect from a movement called “pro-life,” and one which includes a very large Catholic contingent, pro-lifers are not necessarily antiwar. To the extent that the pro-life movement overlaps with the conservative movement, pro-lifers may be pro-war. Yet even the hawkish pro-lifer may feel a pang of cognitive dissonance in opposing abortion while endorsing the killing involved in voluntary wars. Enter Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things.

Bottum’s objective in “The New Fusionism” was to dispel that anxiety and establish the compatibility of anti-abortion and pro-war politics. He offered several lines of argument. First, he noted that anti-abortion voters and hawks had found pragmatic common ground in supporting President Bush’s re-election effort in 2004. That much, at least, was true—but then, Franklin Roosevelt once constructed a coalition of Southern supporters of states’ rights and segregation and black and Northern civil-rights activists. Political expedience makes for odd couplings, which do not always become stable alliances.

A deeper, theoretical grounding was needed to tie pro-lifers to neoconservatism, but Bottum was not up to the task. The best he could manage was the assertion that “The opponents of abortion and euthanasia insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in domestic politics. The opponents of Islamofascism and rule by terror insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics. Why shouldn’t they grow toward each other?” Bottum was begging the question he was supposed to answer. After all, opponents of war also insist that there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics—truths like “it is wrong to wage unjust wars and thereby cause the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents.” So why should opponents of abortion side with neocons against antiwar conservatives and Pope Benedict XVI?

“Grow toward each other” turns out to be the key phrase in “the New Fusionism,” since Bottum, unable to unite hawks and pro-lifers in principle, resorts in the end to wishful thinking and speculation. He observes that “the people called neoconservative are much more opposed to abortion than they were even ten years ago”—which may be true, although the fact that neocons still cherish pro-abortion politicians like Rudy Giuliani and Joseph Lieberman suggests how limited their anti-abortion credentials really are. Paleos may make an exception to their abortion principles to support Jim Webb, but neocons identify wholeheartedly with Giuliani and Lieberman.


Still, neocons are becoming more anti-abortion, Bottum claimed, and the anti-abortion religious Right has become more interventionist in foreign policy. Bottum proved this point by citing the enthusiasm of Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Sam Brownback for humanitarian activism abroad, as well as Evangelical support for Israel. Though that may say little to Bottum’s Catholic coreligionists, he could perhaps hope that politically Protestantized conservative Catholics would follow the lead of Evangelicals in ardently supporting Israel, even in the face of the Vatican’s criticisms of that state’s behavior. “Growing toward each other” turns out to mean that Catholics become more like Evangelicals and Evangelicals become more like neocons, while the neocons genuflect in the direction of anti-abortion politics.


Bottum admitted that his hothouse hybrid of Evangelical interventionism and neocon dithering over abortion didn’t add up to anything resembling traditional conservatism: “The angry isolationist paleoconservatives are probably right—this isn’t conservatism, in several older senses of the word. But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene.” Those were the truest words in the essay.

The neocons haven’t had much luck with making a positive theoretical case an anti-abortion-neoconservative partnership. But even a weak case like Bottum’s might suffice if the argument against a paleoconservative-anti-abortion alliance were made strongly enough. St. Louis University historian James Hitchcock attempted to make that argument in his Human Life Review article “Abortion and the Catholic ‘Right.’”

Although anti-abortion hawks have long made common cause with Giulianis and Liebermans, Hitchcock denounced paleoconservatives like Joe Sobran and Howard Phillips (who isn’t Catholic) for what he considered to be an insufficient devotion to the pro-life cause. Hitchcock was aggrieved that Sobran and other writers associated with the traditionalist Catholic publications The Wanderer and The Remnant would take an interest in other issues as well as abortion: war, civil liberties, economics, national sovereignty. How this differs from Catholic neocons’ behavior—for they, too, take an interest in such things, albeit usually on the other side of the debate—was never addressed by Hitchcock. In defense of the paleos, one can at least point out that corporate capitalism—what Michael Novak calls “democratic capitalism”—is yet another thing about which Catholic authorities have been critical.

Hitchcock contends that another thing that makes Catholic paleos such as Sobran bad pro-lifers is that they supported candidates like Senator Webb, who are not only pro-abortion themselves but who make it extremely unlikely that Bush will be able to appoint any more anti-abortion justices. “Not once during the [2006] campaign,” Hitchcock writes, “did any writer in The Wanderer explicitly remind readers of the crucial importance of judicial appointments, and some even implied the contrary.”

The judges question and its direct tie to abortion are what kept many antiwar pro-lifers, including Pat Buchanan, on Bush’s side in the 2004 presidential election. Weren’t the paleos who abandoned the GOP in 2006 surrendering to—indeed, aiding and abetting—the party of abortion?

Pro-lifers who are more attached to the Republican Party and its wars than to the cause of ending abortion might well agree with Hitchcock. But he and they are wrong.  Again, their position begs a very important question—namely, the righteousness of the Iraq War. If the Iraq War is unjust, it should rank as high as abortion as an evil to be opposed. Indeed, the proper comparison for an unjust war is not to legalized abortion, which is bad enough, but to forced abortion, since the state not only countenances illicit killing but carries out the act. That doesn’t mean that pro-lifers must vote, as many paleos did, for antiwar, pro-abortion candidates like Webb. But it does complicate the picture considerably, raising the same questions as are raised when pro-lifers are faced with a candidate who is strongly anti-abortion but supports euthanasia. Hitchcock does not consider this. He doesn’t consider at all the justice of the Iraq War, which is just as much a life issue as abortion or euthanasia.

A second point that must be raised against Hitchcock—one ably made by Scott Richert in Taki’s Magazine last year—is that he blames precisely the wrong set of conservatives for costing the Republicans control of Congress and setting back the pro-life cause. The blunt truth is that Joseph Sobran and the other members of the dissident Catholic Right do not command enough votes to swing an election. Or rather, they might have just enough influence to swing an election as close as the one between Webb and George Allen—but even if Allen had won and the Senate were divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, Democrats and moderate Republicans together would be just as much an impediment to appointing pro-life judges as the Democratic Senate is now.

The blame for the Republican loss of Congress and the damage it inflicted upon the pro-life movement rests not with antiwar paleoconservatives but with Hitchcock’s friends the neocons. (Hitchcock praises The Weekly Standard in his “Catholic Right” essay.) “The pro-life movement was at least temporarily derailed in 2006 by the strong public backlash against the war in Iraq,” he writes.  That’s exactly right: the Iraq War, not Joe Sobran’s support for Jim Webb, cost the Republicans Congress and derailed the pro-life movement. And who gave us the Iraq War?

“For over three decades now,” Hitchcock writes, “the pro-life movement has defined itself as a ‘single issue’ constituency…” Unfortunately, electoral politics is not about single issues, and when pro-lifers support reckless military policies like those of Bush, the predictable result is that when the Republicans go down in ignominy they take the pro-life cause with them—at least for a time. The Hitchcock strategy, ignoring as it does both political reality and the moral teachings of the Church in every area except abortion, is neither principled nor pragmatic. No wonder the pro-life movement is losing ground.

Still, all too many pro-lifers may heed Bottum and Hitchcock rather than Buchanan, Sobran, and the antiwar, anti-abortion Right. Many will swear allegiance to the neocon cause thanks to books like Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death.


In a recent Human Life Review essay of his own, “The Afterparty of Death”[PDF], Ponnuru announces that his 2006 book “was the first mass-market pro-life book in a generation.” It set out to make a comprehensive case for the pro-life cause. “In my book,” he writes, “I sought to explain why pro-lifers believe (and are right to believe) that abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive research, and infanticide are unjust, and should be illegal.” The book met with overwhelmingly negative reviews: Ponnuru’s Human Life Review essay is intended as a rebuttal to them. Unsurprisingly, most of the negative reviews came from abortion-rights supporters. Yet among Ponnuru’s critics were thoughtful, even conservative abortion-rights supporters such as John Derbyshire, who might have been open to persuasion by a better book. As it was, Derbyshire scathingly called Ponnuru’s philosophy, “a frigid and pitiless dogma.” He was right to do so: on the basis of Ponnuru’s book, one would think that the pro-life cause was frigid and pitiless.

Over the last 15 years, three forces have acted to cut the abortion rate and increase the number of Americans who consider themselves pro-life. One has been the proliferation of state-level restrictions on abortion. The second has been the spread of ultrasound technology: women who see their gestating children are much less likely to abort them. The third has been the ability of pro-lifers to show the extremism of the other side, as dramatized through the battle over partial-birth abortion. The second and third forces are visceral, not intellectual. They are grounded in everyday human sentiment: a love of children and a horror of violence.

Ramesh Ponnuru fails to understand this. His book presents a cold, rationalistic argument—he contends that, given certain inalienable, abstract natural rights, abortion must logically be prohibited. The principles of democracy and equality, as well as logic, demand it. I quoted Ponnuru’s description of the essence of his argument when I reviewed his book for Chronicles at the beginning of last year:

“These rights—and to have any rights at all must be to have the right not to be killed—cannot depend on particular qualities that some human beings have and others do not. They cannot depend on race, or age, or sex; nor can they depend on stage of development or condition of dependency.” If they do, “the notion that all human beings are created equal becomes a self-evident lie.” Ideological democracy is at stake: Roe, Ponnuru tells us, was not only procedurally undemocratic, but also “it violates the principle of human equality that is the moral basis for democratic self-government, and specifically for American democracy. ... Other countries have grounded freedom and equality in the requirements of social peace; America has grounded them in those of moral truth (‘We hold these truths…’).”

Ponnuru argues an ideological case built on natural rights, with a heavy emphasis on equality and democracy. In other words, he makes a philosophically leftist argument for banning abortion. The argument isn’t wrong because it’s leftist, though. It’s wrong because the theory of natural rights does not lead where Ponnuru thinks it leads, either in theory or in practice.


In theory, as a thoroughgoing believer in natural rights, the libertarian Murray Rothbard, has shown, the “right to life” may well conflict with other rights. Rothbard wrote in For a New Liberty:

If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being’s body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.

The pro-life bioethicist Wesley Smith, reviewing The Party of Death in The Weekly Standard, raised the same problem: “the real nexus of the debate is whether or under what circumstances society should be able to force a pregnant woman to do with her body that which she does not with to do, namely gestate and give birth.”

Ponnuru’s response in “Afterparty” is to concede that this argument “would work if abortion were a mere eviction from the womb. But the death of the fetus is in nearly every real case the goal of an abortion…” The rights-logic of Ponnuru’s own argument, though, only takes him this far: the fetus should not be actively destroyed, but may be evicted from the womb—which, for fetuses prior to the age of viability, amounts to a death sentence. Ponnuru does not follow his own logic to that conclusion, because that is not the conclusion he wishes to reach. But it is where his argument leads. Murray Rothbard’s philosophical continuator Walter Block has explored this avenue thoroughly, reaching the conclusion that eviction is consistent with natural rights, even if deliberate destruction is not. Whether the fetus can survive eviction is immaterial, according to this line of thinking.


The same rights-logic can be applied to children after they are born as well: they have no “right” to exist in their parents homes and can be evicted at will, again regardless of what will happen to them as a result. Rights frameworks may have their place in philosophy—certainly they have a place in law and tradition. But rights-talk is a poor way to address the relationship between parents and children or fetuses and mothers-to-be.

What is more, Ponnuru never shows that the rights he posits have any existential substance. Most pro-lifers come to their convictions from a religious tradition. Ponnuru believes this will not do as a basis for public policy. The trouble is, public policy and the prudential reasoning that ought to inform it cannot answer ultimate questions, including the question of what human life is and how highly it is to be valued. Yet a secular, rights-based argument is ultimately no more or less partial and sectarian than an overtly religious argument. Whatever he may personally believe, Ponnuru does not provide any evidence or reasoning to show that his rights claims are objective, universal, and logically binding.

So much for theory. The practices of “human rights” turn out to be even worse for pro-lifers. There is, first of all, the practical inability of rights arguments like Ponnuru’s to persuade anyone. If pro-lifers had put their energies into arguing along the lines Ponnuru favors, rather than showing women ultrasound pictures or describing the brutal procedures of partial-birth abortion, there would be a much higher abortion rate today. Conservatives have always known that most people are governed not by abstract reason but by emotions and experience.


Rights are not just a bust in argumentative terms, however. The actual application of Western-style rights to societies that have never had them before leads, more often than not, to more abortion rather than less. Rights-shunning traditional societies tend to frown on abortion—indeed, some of the United States’ most reliable allies in the UN against international family-planning programs are Muslim countries and other Third World states that do not subscribe to Western ideas of rights and equality. And what happens when these traditional societies are transformed by American power? In Iraq, abortion rates soared in the months following the U.S. invasion, as the Daily Telegraph reported in 2003:


In Iraq, a Muslim country, abortion has long been illegal—and socially taboo—except in medical emergencies. But since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s rule turned the established order on its head, Baghdad has witnessed an upsurge in promiscuity—and the emergence of a practice too risky to carry out under the former regime, with its network of spies. Abortion has become readily available.

Abortion followed in the wake of the democratization of Japan, too: the practice was legalized there under American proconsul Douglas MacArthur. If it is generally true, as these examples suggest, that replacing religion and tradition with rights leads to more abortion, pro-lifers have all the better reason to oppose the neocon project of democratizing the world.

The fallacies and missteps of Bottum, Hitchcock, Ponnuru, and all their ideological brethren are legion. Pro-lifers who follow them risk undercutting their own principles and crippling their own cause. By making an alliance with the hawks, pro-lifers will get more war—and more, not less, abortion, both at home and abroad. Luckily, pro-lifers do have an alternative. They can follow the antiwar and anti-abortion path illuminated by such figures as Ron Paul and Benedict XVI. Norma McCorvey made the right choice in 2008. May other pro-lifers do so in the future.


Daniel McCarthy is associate editor of The American Conservative magazine.

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