A Review of Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death
The Democrats the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life
(After President Bush’s veto of the Stem Cell Research bill I found myself wondering: What the heck are these people thinking? After reading “Party of Death” I have my answer. They aren’t thinking much, and they sure don’t know much about biology.)
”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
I am neither an expert on abortion nor a historian of law so, this being a science blog, I will focus on the portions of Mr. Ponnuru’s book where he draws on science to support his arguments. Because Mr. Ponnuru has presented a “secular” argument for the “Pro-Life” position based on his understanding of biological science, addressing his flawed use of science effectively rebuts most of his arguments regarding the beginning of life. (We’ll save end of life issues for another time.)
Briefly stated, Mr. Ponnuru’s position is that all living human organisms have a fundamental right to life that cannot be taken away from them. Thus, practices like embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide that cause a human organism to die are all violations of the fundamental right to life and are morally unacceptable.
In contrast to Ponnuru’s position is the fact that we all believe killing some human organisms is justified under certain circumstances; we just disagree about when and where such killing is appropriate. Ponnuru attempts to walk a tight-rope between justifying the killing of people during war or the death penalty, on the one hand, while maintaining that killing a zygote is evil on the other. He does this by claiming that viewing zygotes, blastocysts, fetuses, and the brain dead as non-persons sets us on a slippery slope that will lead us to accepting the killing of fully developed completely healthy people. It seems not to have occurred to him that by accepting the killings of civilians in war, or the execution of prisoners whom we fully acknowledge are people no slippery slope is necessary to lead us into accepting justifications for killing fully developed and healthy humans beings.
In Chapter 7 “The Politics of Personhood”
Ponnuru states that ESCR and abortion are
Ah yes, science the great mystery solver! Mr. Ponnuru’s degree is in history. I wonder what an actual scientist would say on the matter?“When Does Human Life Begin?
So apparently scientists are not quite as confident as Mr. Ponnuru that they have solved this mystery. Or, if they are certain, they disagree with him about what the answer is.
“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.”
Mr. Ponnuru, this is precisely the logical error that you have made throughout your book, equating living organisms having human DNA with persons having rights. What’s more, you haven’t even applied this standard consistently denying entirely the rights of haploid Americans. Sperm and eggs being categorically human, living, and haploid organisms should, by your logic, have the same rights as a newborn child.
“And here we come to the fundamental question in dispute. That question can be described in different ways: whether all human beings have a right not to be killed: whether membership in the human species is enough to confer rights; whether we accept the existence of a category of human non-persons. Opponents of abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, and infanticide believe that all human beings should be protected from being killed. They believe, further, that to the extent America fails to provide this protection it betrays its own founding principles. The party of death on the other hand, believes that some human beings deserve that protection and some do not.”
First, human being to me means person, a concept you have rejected so lets substitute another term you’ve used: human organism. We all believe that the killing of certain human organisms is justified and in the case of sperm and eggs, trivial. So if the “party of life” does believe that all human organisms should be protected from being killed they are going to have to make greater efforts to defend the rights of haploid Americans.
“All of us who read this page were once human embryos. The history of our bodies began with the formation of an embryo. We were those embryos, just as we were once fetuses, infants, children and adolescents. But we were never a sperm cell and an egg cell. (Those cells were genetically and functionally parts of other human beings.)”
While I agree that we were all once embryos, fetuses, infants, ... I find it impossible to believe that Mr. Ponnuru, or I, was never a sperm cell and an egg cell. I know that sex education is no longer allowed in schools these days but surely a man of Mr. Ponnuru’s age,... a graduate of Princeton,.... with a child of his own,... knows about the birds and the bees?
So why does he state that you, and I, and he, and everyone else who reads his book were never a sperm and an egg cell? His misguided notion that “Those cells were genetically and functionally parts of other human beings.” does not stand. Any student of biology will recognize that Mendel’s Laws of Independent Assortment and Random Segregation show that sperm and egg cells will differ genetically from the adult from whom they
Perhaps Mr. Ponnuru objects to the non-unitary nature of the sperm and egg prior to their union. But such a position would not accommodate the facts of twinning. We all know that an embryo can divide to form two or more individuals as identical twins, triplets, etc. But such a divided embryo can reunite to form a single unitary individual again. Surely Mr. Ponnuru would agree that such a ”reunited” individual is still a person, therefore how can the humanity of the un-unified sperm and egg be denied?
“The formation of the embryo marks the beginning of a new human life: a new and complete organism that belongs to the human species. Embryology textbooks say so, with no glimmer of uncertainty or ambiguity.”3
No glimmer of uncertainty of ambiguity?
Here Mr. Ponnuru earns points for including extended quotations from his citations in the notes, a practice he uses admirably throughout the book. However, upon examination, these notes do not strengthen his case. His own quotations from developmental biology textbooks refute his position!
“We begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes...”
Why do you suppose we do that? It’s because life is a cycle, it is not a linear process with a beginning middle and end. Regarding the “...initiate the embryonic development of a new individual” yes, the zygote is a new individual, a new individual created from the fusion of two prior individuals: the sperm and the egg.
(I won’t even go into the fact that using an embryology textbook, a tome that typically deals with events post-fertilization to birth, rather begs the question of when life begins.)
Another citations reads:
And yet here is Mr. Ponnuru using this mans very words to justify his personal view of ontogeny, that human life/personhood begins at conception. To finish the quotation:
“Although life is a continuous process fertilization (which incidentally, is
I don’t think that anyone would disagree that fertilization is a critical landmark. But development is full of critical landmarks: spermatogenesis, oogenesis, gastrulation, neurulation, ....
Ponnuru knows the landmark he is looking for to signify the beginning of human life, and in his analysis he has set his sights on reaching that landmark alone, once there however Ponnuru refuses to inquire whether there is firmer ground further on or ground equally as firm elsewhere.
Ponnuru’s colleague at National Review Online, John Derbyshire, has identified the fundamental flaw with Ponnuru’s analysis of life issues, calling it “the Golden Rule of religious apologetics”:
“The argument for the sanctity of human life is straightforward. If human beings have intrinisic dignity and worth, then they have this dignity and worth simply because they are human beings. It follows that all human beings have this dignity and worth. They are equal in the fundamental rights that attach to being human. These rights—and to have any rights at all must be to have a 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.”
Nor can they depend on chromosome number or ploidy level Mr. Ponnuru. For example, male ants, bees, and wasps are all haploids. Aren't they still ants, bees, and wasps? Why would they be anything else? Sperm and eggs have human DNA and they are living. Therefore, according to your logic, they are entitled to the same rights as a ten-day-old baby.
“The party of death holds that there are no “human rights” in the sense of rights that come simply from being human. Rather, some human organisms have basic right because of qualities that they, in particular, happen to have; and those human beings who do not have these qualities are not persons with rights.”
Again, sperm and eggs are human. You have not acknowledged their basic rights in your book. You do not do so, I presume, because of certain qualities that they, in particular happen (not) to have, qualities that you yourself do have. Welcome to the party of death Ramesh!
I am reminded here of the age-old joke at the expense of scientists who find no need for God in the creation of life. A scientist goes to tell God that men no longer have any use for Him saying:
Scientist: “God, with our technology and science we no longer have any use for you.”
God: “But I created the Heavens and the Earth, I hung the stars in the firmament...”
Scientist: “No. With our science we’ve shown that the earth is just a planet revolving around the sun, and all the stars are just billions of other suns.
God: “But I created all life on earth.”
Scientist: “No, with our science we’ve shown that all living things arose through evolution, a completely natural process, there is no need for a supernatural Creator.”
God: “Ok. But can you do this?” God picks up a ball of clay, shapes it into a man and breathes life into it.
The scientist bends over to scoop up some clay.
God: “Ah, ah, ah,… You’ve got to make your own clay.”
Put to a similar challenge one can imagine Ponnuru attempting to create a “new human being” in a Petri dish, of course he has to start with two living human beings of a different sort from the one he wishes to create. This is the fundamental problem with the question:
“When does life begin?”
It doesn’t. Or at least it hasn’t, not in a very long time. Individual lives may end but all are connected to the same wellspring from which all life on earth has flowed. So we are not talking about human life beginning what we are talking about is individuation or personhood. This too is a continuous rather than a discrete process.
At the end of chapter seven Mr. Ponnuru reassures us that just because all human beings from conception until the grave have a fundamental right not to be killed that does NOT mean that we cannot kill people in wars or with lethal injections. Wheww!! That was close. For a second there I thought that whole “right to life” “Party of Life” “Culture of Life” might actually mean something. Thank God it’s just a tool for bashing your political opponents.
In Chapter 12 “Stem Sell: The Trouble with Ron Reagan”
Ponnuru attacks Ron Reagan Jr. for endorsing stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention. Ponnuru cites Rick Weiss’s article in the Washington Post quoting Alzheimer’s researchers as saying that treatments of Alzheimer’s using embryonic stem cell transplantation are not likely to work. This is an example of how opponents of ESCR distort the truth in order to hinder medical research. The fact of the matter is that embryonic stem cell research is expected to be very helpful in developing treatments for Alzheimer’s, not directly through stem cell transplantation, but by allowing researchers to create cells affected by Alzheimer’s.
Ponnuru goes on to display further ignorance of embryology, stating that Ron Reagan “denies that the new biological entity created (by somatic cell nuclear transfer—ed.) is a fetus.” Of course it’s not a fetus it’s an embryo up to eight weeks which is far longer that cells would be harvested for ESCR. He claims that this is misdirection on the part of Reagan, I’ll make no claims about Ponnuru’s intentions, only note that he is completely wrong.
On Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) or therapeutic cloning...
“The biotech industry, meanwhile, has gotten the state of New Jersey to pass a law authorizing human cloning for, among other purposes, the harvesting of “cadaveric fetal tissue” – in other words, the corpses of cloned fetuses.”
It should come as no surprise by now that not only is this not just an exaggeration by Ponnuru, it’s in an outright lie.
This bill does authorize the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from embryos created using Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. However, it also states:
“The bill stipulates that this research is to be: conducted with full consideration for its ethical and medical implications; and reviewed, in each case, by an institutional review board operating in accordance with applicable federal regulations.”
No IRB is going to approve “fetus farming”.
“If the goal is to generate healthy tissues that match a patient’s genetic profile, it seems circuitous to clone him, produce stem cells from an embryo, and then get them to generate the tissue. It would be much simpler to let the embryo grow to the point that it produced the tissues itself, and then take it apart.”
I agree with Ponnuru that “fetus farming” is not something we should engage in and, obviously, so did the New Jersey legislators. But there are cases where we would want cells, not organs for transplantation, for instance to treat spinal cord injuries. Clearly it is impossible to transplant the spine, but stem cells obtained from a therapeutically cloned embryo could be transplanted into an injured spinal cord and have been shown to heal spinal injuries in mice.
But it is disingenuous on the part of Ponnuru and his allies, to invoke the horror of fetus farming while maintaining their opposition to a bill that would impose a 10 year prison sentence and a $1 million fine as punishment for “implanting or attempting to implant the product of nuclear transplantation into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.”
By opposing this bill in order to holdout for a ban on therapeutic cloning, the “Right to Lifers” leave the door open for groups like the Raelians or other unscrupulous entities to produce a cloned human being. Ponnuru actively endorses an incrementalist approach to banning abortions. Why does he eschew an incrementalist approach to banning cloning? As it is, their obstruction of a bill that would effectively end any attempt to reproductively clone a human being in this country leaves nothing between us and the bottom of the slippery slope but a gaping hole.
Overall, I saw little mention of birth control and no mention of Plan B in the bookNeither term appears in the index. In contrast, “partial-birth abortion” and D&X (the clinical abbreviation) do appear in the index as well as on pages: 38, 44-50, 56, 63, 211, 214; 47-48, 42-45 and 43-46, 56-57, and 63 respectively.
This seems a little odd given the recent opposition to birth control that has sprouted up among members of the “pro-life” movement.
It’s almost as if he wants to play up the most objectionable and disgusting procedures which are used by relatively few of his opponents, while trying to avoid arousing alarm about the his own group gradually forcing their beliefs on others. Given that Ponnuru has often endorsed an incrementalist approach to life issues, ie: overturn Roe v. Wade,--> pursue bans on abortion at the state level, --> further restrict access to contraceptives,--> ban in vitro fertilization,-->.... These omissions and the likely reason for them, brings up an interesting point.
Most hills have two sides. One man’s “incrementalism” is another man’s “slippery slope”.
If, as Ponnuru claims, the slippery slope on the side in favor of stem cell research leads to fetus farming, involuntary organ harvesting from people with mental disabilities, infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, and a long list of other horrors; where does the slippery slope on the other side of the hill lead? Bans on masturbation? Felonious menstruation? Mandatory mating? The Handmaid’s Tale? Every Sperm is Sacred?
I do give Ponnuru credit for at least trying to produce something worthy of rebuttal, as opposed to his former colleague at National Review and fellow Regnery author Ann Coulter, the rebuttal of whose book must have been as tedious as rebutting a collection of “dumb Pollock” jokes. But his refusal to embrace the full implications of the “pro-life” position cause me to doubt his intellectual honesty. And his misuse of science and attempts to vilify opposing points of view convince me that this is not an honest attempt to promote dialog, instead it is election year read meat being flung to the base, typical of the propaganda mill that is Regnery Publishing.