Nat Hentoff died with the coming of the new year. He was someone this country can ill do without. Especially now.
Hentoff started off as a writer on jazz, and he was one of the best. He soon branched out into just about everything else, mostly in a four-decade stint with The Village Voice. He was omnivorous in his interests, fearless in his judgments, and never afraid to learn. He wrote a memoir I’d just finished before he died, and its title encapsulated his career: “Speaking Freely.”
Free speech, for Hentoff, was the precondition of a free society and the basis of all its activities. Exercising it was the basic job of a writer, and defending it was that of a citizen. There was never an excuse for denying it, delaying it or censoring it. And it was always offensive, always obscene, always irresponsible, because there would always be someone to be angered, offended or wounded by what one had to say or the way one chose to say it. But there was always a fair remedy for free speech one didn’t like, which was free speech of one’s own. There was no remedy for its absence, however, except to bring it back.
Hentoff grew up in a world where just about every racial, religious or ethnic minority in the country had nicknames designed to slur and insult, and everyone took such exchanges as a matter of course. I wouldn’t be anxious to go back to those days, though derogatory naming could serve as a rough means of socialization in a nation where immigrants were still pouring in. But neither am I happy to live in a time when almost any characterization of a group except by the term sanctioned for itself is more or less grounds for a hanging. Political correctness is as bad a form of coercion as anything Hoover ever thought of, and debates about micro-aggression and safe spaces on college campuses are just the most recent effort of the thought police for whom free speech is Enemy No. 1.
It also proves the point that it isn’t just the political right that hates the First Amendment, or at least any part of it not being exercised by itself; the left can be just as odious, and if anything even more sanctimonious.
Which brings me to the moment when Nat Hentoff himself crossed the line, and found himself shunned by friends of many years. Politically, Hentoff was a man of the left, which meant he championed the causes of civil rights, racial and sexual equality, death penalty abolition and all the other good stuff. That included, of course, so-called reproductive rights — the right of a woman to determine whether to bear or abort a child that had been enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Virtually everyone Hentoff knew was pro-choice, including the radical feminist who was his wife. He later recalled that he had only met a single person socially who was pro-life, and he put her views down to a Catholic upbringing. Hentoff defined himself as a Jewish atheist, and there seemed no reason to give the matter further thought.
What took Hentoff down what he called the road to pariahdom was the case of a baby Jane Doe born with spina bifida, whose parents had decided not to authorize a life-saving operation. The American Civil Liberties Union, on whose national board Hentoff served, defended their decision on privacy grounds; so did “Sixty Minutes,” which broadcasted a report on the case. But baby Jane Doe troubled Hentoff. Here it was not a fetus, but a born child whose independent rights had been stipulated by Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade. To extend the parental privacy rights the court majority had found in legalizing abortion to life-and-death control of an actually living person was a stretch that, for Hentoff, abrogated constitutional rights for everyone. That took him back to the reasoning behind Roe v. Wade itself. What essential difference between a born and an unborn child deprived the latter of its right to life?
Hentoff researched the issue in the medical literature, not wishing to inject religion into it. He found no scientifically accepted point at which life could be said to begin other than at conception, and no way to consider such life as other than human. Legalized abortion, he concluded, was a license to kill, and more than a million human lives a year were being terminated in America without moral justification. Capital punishment might kill in the dozens or hundreds in a given year; a million innocent lives, disposable at convenience, was another order of magnitude entirely.
Hentoff began to do what he always did with a subject that concerned him: he wrote about it. His Village Voice colleagues tolerated his pro-life columns, though they privately thought him mad. College and other speaking engagements were canceled or disrupted. The champion of free speech, the paladin of the left on most other subjects, was not merely persona non grata. He was an object of fear, hatred and personal threat. Life at home wasn’t very pleasant either, at least whenever reproductive rights came up.
Hentoff found his way eventually into the company of such prominent Catholics as Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and John O’Connor of New York. He listened sympathetically to the pro-life Illinois representative, Henry Hyde. He did not abandon his other liberal positions, or cease to fight for them. But he did adopt a secularist version of the Catholic right to life ethic, including opposition not only to capital punishment but euthanasia. And he discovered that not all virtue was necessarily on one side of the political spectrum.
I bring this subject up not only because Hentoff’s opposition to abortion, which he maintained to the end of his long life, was prominent in all his obituaries, as if a single heresy had essentially defined his career. I do so because, as a secular Jew myself and decidedly on the left of most public issues, I found myself opposing abortion too on grounds similar to Hentoff’s, and facing the kind of incomprehension, disbelief and often anger that he had experienced, albeit less publicly.
I didn’t arrive at my position through reading Hentoff or anyone else. I came to it by observing a family that cared for a mentally challenged girl who, approaching puberty, would never have a mental capacity beyond that of a six-month-old child. The love the child received from her parents and the siblings who had been raised to value her as they did themselves struck me as have few other things in my life, then or since. I realized on that day that love is the truest choice one can make, and that denying the human in any of us is denying it in us all. I can’t say I changed my mind on that day, because, like Hentoff, I had been a casual supporter of abortion until then. Rather, on that day, I found it.
I haven’t spoken much about the issue of abortion, or identified myself publicly with the pro-life movement as I have with death penalty abolition. I haven’t picketed clinics or joined marches. I do think that the feminist argument for a woman’s right to control her body is a powerful one, and I respect those who assert it. But I think the right to life must trump all others except in the rarest circumstances, whatever personal or social inconveniences it may present.
When I ran across Nat Hentoff’s pro-life writings, I felt I’d found someone very much like myself who had come to a moral conclusion deeply unpopular in my own set. It didn’t add to my sense of persuasion, but it did hearten me. I had my conviction before, and I had it after. But Nat Hentoff had something else I realized had been lacking in my own position. He had the courage of it. I salute him for that. Whatever one’s views on abortion or anything else, it is a legacy any of us could wish for.