Nat Hentoff, Great Defender of Human Life

Original Article

The late, great Nat Hentoff befriended me during the 1990s, I don’t remember exactly when. Having read my work against euthanasia, he reached out to me for an interview for one of his columns. That initial professional interaction bloomed into a good friendship, mostly conducted over the phone, but also in person over meals whenever I was able to get to New York City.

Nat died recently at the ripe age of ninety-one, receiving the laudatory obituaries he so richly deserves for his decades of contributions to civil-liberties discourse and the popular understanding of jazz (his personal passion). I can’t add to those accolades. But I would like to highlight one crucial aspect of Nat’s body of work that obituary writers in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and other mainstream media outlets (though not First Things) woefully downplayed: Nat stood steadfastly—sometimes at great professional and personal cost—for the sanctity and equality of human life from conception to natural death.

Indeed, Nat was pro-life to the marrow, his views predicated on history—in particular, lessons he learned from the Holocaust—and the indisputable, objective scientific fact that even the newest embryo is a biological human being. Accordingly, his work castigated legalized abortion, partial-birth terminations, unethical experimentation on disabled babies, health-care rationing, the intentional dehydration of Terri Schiavo, euthanasia, and other life-disaffirming issues and policies that reared their ugly heads over the last thirty or so years of his writing career. He deserved a Pulitzer Prize for his profound and energetic advocacy—but then, his pro-life perspective probably deep-sixed any chance of that.

While the mainstream viewed Nat’s human exceptionalism advocacy as an embarrassing anomaly, pro-lifers received it as sweet incense. Nat’s ongoing apologia compelled the Human Life Foundation to name him its “Great Defender of Life” in 2005. Nat privileged me by asking me to introduce him at that event, where I lauded him as “a superb writer and first-class public intellectual, … a man of consistent, steadfast principle; a moral purist in an age of hand-wringing accommodationists.” Nat was all that, and more.

But I can think of no better way to honor the greatness of his memory than to allow Nat himself to share his pro-life values with First Things readers. From the official transcript of his acceptance speech (note Nat’s droll sense of humor):

When [Human Life Foundation director] Maria [Maffucci] first called me with this stunning designation, I soon thought of a truly great Defender of Life whom I was privileged to know, first as a reporter, and then as a friend: John Cardinal O’Connor. [APPLAUSE] Before he came to New York from Scranton, he received some of the most vicious newspaper editorials, particularly one in the New York Times,which castigated him for having the appalling taste to use “holocaust” and “abortion” in the same sentence. And then, Gloria Steinem told New York Magazine that the two worst things that had happened in New York in recent years were AIDS and John O’Connor.

So when I first went to meet him to start doing the profile for the New Yorker, I thought I owed it to him as a member of the predatory press to tell him where I was coming from. And I told him … I am a Jewish, atheist, civil-libertarian prolifer. He asked me to repeat that. And he took out a pen. I think he thought he had discovered a new sect. …

I am still here, making trouble. … My colleagues—so to speak—in the press did one of the worst jobs of reporting I have ever seen on the Terri Schiavo case. Just for one thing, hardly any newspaper, or hardly any television broadcast or radio broadcast, mentioned that twenty-six major disability rights organizations had filed legal briefs in her case. …

Now this nation [is converting to the] futility doctrine. … [I]n hospitals [we hear,] “This life is not worth continuing, and we need the beds.” This idea has been promulgated by many bioethicists whom I described years ago as the new priesthood of death. This is not a knock on priests.

We are still, in terms of our laws, at a stage [where], following a trial in 2004 on the constitutionality of partial-birth abortion, Federal District Judge Richard Conway Casey of the Southern District here in New York said in an opinion: “The Court finds that the testimony at trial and before Congress establishes that D&X partial-birth abortion is a gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized medical procedure. And there is credible evidence that D&X abortions subject fetuses to severe pain.” Nevertheless, Judge Casey also ruled that the federal ban on partial-birth abortion is in conflict with a 2000 Supreme Court ruling, and therefore, he said “it is unconstitutional.”

That’s stare decisis gone wrong. There was another Supreme Court precedent: “Slavery may be repugnant but no black, slave or free, has any rights under the Constitution.”—the Dred Scott decision. But that precedent was overturned. As Justice John Marshall said, “this Constitution is a living document.” …

I live in Greenwich Village as did e.e. cummings. I never met him, but I knew his poetry and he certainly understood the power of birth. “We can never be born enough; we are human beings for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery; the mystery of growing. It takes courage,” he wrote, “to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” That is, if the bioethicists and their colleagues in the culture of death allow you to grow up.

Almost finally, on April 15th, 1986, John Cardinal O’Connor spoke at the Harvard Law School Forum. He enjoyed not preaching to the choir from time to time. He said, “We are already seeing cruel signs of an abortion mentality; what it can mean for all society. Who is to determine which life is meaningful, which life is not? We must ask: How safe will the retarded be, the handicapped, the aged, the wheel-chaired, the incurably ill, when so-called quality of life becomes the determination of who is to live and who is to die?” He ended, “the prospects are frightening.” However, as he always counseled, and acted, prospects are not immutable when you insist on the power of life.

Nat Hentoff epitomized that “power of life.” So, fare thee well, you wonderful Jewish, atheist, civil-libertarian, leftwing pro-lifer. We will not see your like again.

Post Script: If I may be allowed a brief point of personal privilege: None of us can judge the state of another’s soul. But as others who knew Nat have stated, I never fully believed the “atheist” part of his iconoclastic self-description. I’d tease him gently about that whenever I was with him, and his eyes would just twinkle. As I think back on our all-too-brief conversations, as I reflect on what he stood for and his shimmering integrity, I still don’t.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.