I'll type straight if you'll think straight

In his response to something I wrote here yesterday, the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru points out that I mispelled his last name. ("Matthew Boudway is so indignant over a post of mine that he can't even type straight.") I apologize to him for that. A Boudway can never be too careful about names. Anyway, it was not for lack of familiarity with his work: I think Ponnuru is one of the bright spots at NR, even if I disagree with him most of the time.

In my post, I remarked that Ponnuru presented no arguments about whether the Senate bill would fund elective abortions, and I criticized him for instead focusing on what he called "politics": the question of whose arguments most prolifers were likely to trust—not whose arguments were better, nor even whose argument should be trusted. I had also faulted the Weekly Standard piece he recommended for suggesting, without evidence, that community health centers performed abortions. Ponnuru responds:

1) You don't have to offer an argument when all you're doing is endorsing someone else's. 2) I don't see why we should credit the claim of an association of community health centers that not one of its members has ever performed an abortion absent some explanation of how it purports to know this alleged fact. 3) Even if the fact is stipulated it tells us nothing about how some of the CHCs will in the future respond to some activists' concerted efforts, already underway, to get them to offer abortions. 4) I argued that most pro-lifers were going to trust the National Right to Life Committee rather than, say, Commonweal on these issues and that this fact would have political implications. Boudway calls this passage "a textbook example of the ad hominem argument." Not if the textbook has an editor.

To which I'll answer with four points of my own.

First: When all you're doing is endorsing someone else's bad arguments for your conclusion, you should not be surprised if people ask you to provide some good ones instead.

Second: Ponnuru gets the burden of proof exactly backward. It is up to people on his side of this debate to produce evidence that community health centers have performed abortions. Those who represent the centers claim they haven't, and that claim has been widely reported in the media as a fact. Perhaps Ponnuru could tell us what sort of evidence would satisfy him on this point.

Third: The fact that prochoice activists would like community health centers to start performing abortions doesn't mean they probably will—any more thanthe fact that I spelled his name "Punnuru" means that he'll probably start spelling it that way himself, or the fact that I would like him to start presenting good arguments instead of recommending bad ones means that he will. (That "concerted efforts, already underway" is a gem: those efforts have been "underway"—and unsuccessful—for decades.)

Fourth: An ad hominem argument is one about the character of an argument's source rather than its merit. This is precisely the sort of argument that Ponnuru was making: What right-thinking prolifer would ever trust the arguments of Commonweal? By opposing talk of politics to the question of an argument's merits, Ponnuru is identifying politics with irrationality, ignorance, and prejudice: Who knows who's right, and who cares?These people will believe whatever the National Right to Life Committee tells them, and thank God for that. That way of approaching the question does indeed have political implications, and they aren't good.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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