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Beyond the Right to Life

Wilfred M. McClay

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The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life
Ramesh Ponnuru
Regnery, 2006
320 pp.

Even the most complacent observers of the contemporary scene know that we find ourselves in a time of extraordinary promise and peril for the human condition. The two prospects are tightly intertwined. We are proud of our ability to free ourselves from material necessity and from outdated traditions and inherited cultural prejudices, and take for granted an ever-growing knowledge of, and control over, the physical mechanisms of our existence. We feel confident that there are no mysteries or constraints that our knowledge cannot eventually master, no diseases it cannot cure, no possibilities it cannot open to us. And yet nearly all of us experience, from time to time, a shudder of anxiety at the unknown landscapes into which all this is carrying us. Our medical and biotechnological breakthroughs increasingly arrive on our doorsteps with the faint odor of ancient transgression still clinging to them. Every day human ingenuity pushes us into some precinct that was once off-limits, while practices that were once forbidden or rare or unthinkable become commonplace with astonishing rapidity. The momentum of innovation at times seems unstoppable, answerable neither to effective political control nor to effective moral interdictions grounded in a shared metaphysics.

Of course, future shock is nothing new, and there is some comfort to be found in the unchanging fact that change has always seemed threatening. Yet such comfort may be a delusion. A great many of our own era's innovations have clear and profound implications for the meaning of human life itself, as journalist Ramesh Ponnuru forcefully argues in this compact and eminently readable book. In particular, Ponnuru contends that the various "life" issues now preoccupying us -- the unlimited abortion license, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, infanticide, prenatal testing, cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, and others yet to come -- are all interconnected, and are best understood as part of a single phenomenon and a single moral challenge. Although few of the specific details provided in his book will be news to informed readers who follow these matters, his manner of gathering and framing the facts is both arresting and suggestive.

What all of the practices at issue have in common, in his view, is their wanton disregard for the basic rights and fundamental dignity of the human person. Such practices are consciously promoted by political and professional forces that he refers to, a little vaguely, as "the party of death." That term points toward a functional unity underlying disparate movements, arising out of a shared willingness to sacrifice the lives of the marginal and vulnerable -- the very young, the elderly, the disabled, the inconvenient, and others whose "quality of life" is deemed insufficiently weighty to deserve protection -- when doing so is thought to further the cause of individual well-being (among those in the healthy adult majority) and general progress. Ponnuru pushes back hard against these forces, insisting that we should not allow ourselves to abandon our culture's longstanding commitment to the unique and transcendent value of each human life, from conception to natural death, and that we should not countenance any social practices that systemically diminish the value of human life. These are admirable sentiments, admirably expressed.

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 05-Dec-06

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