Why would a Bible-thumping holy roller like me mourn the loss of left-wing, self-described “Jewish atheist” Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist and author who died recently at 91? Maybe it’s because he loved jazz. Maybe it’s because the Bible favors the poor and “the least of these.” Maybe it’s because he slammed all group think, both left and right. Maybe it was his fierce consistency.
Sample his views on abortion. The democratic political left, supposedly, protects the weak and those who cannot defend themselves. It’s all for human rights. So what about society’s absolutely helpless — namely, the unborn?
At first, Hentoff responded to anti-abortion arguments with all the pro-choice cliches, but then he peered into their incoherent logic while reading Catholics like Mary Meehan and Cardinal Joseph Bernadine (wow: an atheist learns from theists). He switched sides and never looked back. He even bore ostracism with aplomb.
He articulated his pro-life views at a forum in 1986 (thanks to Melinda Henneberger for the link). I’ve cut and pasted three samples.
For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a “late abortion.” And surely, they felt, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.
But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.
And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying – this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island – at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”
That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row – due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.
The second force-feeds us tough medicine:
Recently, I was interviewing Dr. Norman Levinsky, Chief of Medicine of Boston University Medical Center and a medical ethicist. He is one of those rare medical ethicists who really is concerned with nurturing life, as contrasted with those of his peers who see death as a form of treatment. He told me that he is much disturbed by the extent to which medical decisions are made according to the patient’s age. He says there are those physicians who believe that life is worth less if you’re over 80 than if you’re 28.
So this is capsulizing an incremental learning process. I was beginning to learn about the indivisibility of life. I began to interview people, to read, and I read Dr. Leo Alexander. Joe Stanton, who must be the greatest single resource of information, at least to beginners – and, I think, non-beginners – in this field, sent me a whole lot of stuff, including Dr. Leo Alexander’s piece in the New England Journal of Medicine in the 1940s. And then I thought of Dr. Alexander when I saw an April 1984 piece in the New England Journal of Medicine by 10 physicians defending the withdrawal of food and water from certain “hopelessly ill” patients. And I found out that Dr. Alexander was still alive then but didn’t have much longer to live. And he said to Patrick Duff, who is a professor of philosophy at Clarke University and who testified in the Brophy case, about that article, “It is much like Germany in the 20s and 30s. The barriers against killing are coming down.”
The third illuminated the hypocrisy of the “open-minded”:
Well, in time, a rather short period of time, I became pro-life across the board, which led to certain social problems, starting at home. My wife’s most recurrent attack begins with, “You are creating social mischief,” and there are people at my paper who do not speak to me anymore. In most cases, that’s no loss.
And I began to find out, in a different way, how the stereotypes about pro-lifers work. When you’re one of them and you read about the stereotypes, you get a sort of different perspective.
There’s more. Read the entire speech here.
Good-bye, Nat Hentoff. I wish we’d met.