Defenders of life lost one of their most eloquent, frustrating, and idiosyncratic voices earlier this year when Nat Hentoff died on January 7, at the age of 91. This Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, pro-lifer’s critiques of abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, racism, and war, provide much to inspire adherents of the Consistent Ethic of Life. Hentoff’s writings also provide much to disappoint this same audience, as toward the end of his life he fell away significantly from the Consistent Life Ethic.
The Boston-born son of Russian immigrants, Nathan Irving Hentoff worked as a print and broadcast journalist for over 60 years, writing for periodicals such as Down Beat, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and the Washington Post. During his long career, Hentoff published over 35 books, both fiction and non-fiction. In a style that blended righteous indignation with wry good humor—and was punctuated by Hentoff’s characteristic use of the phrase “Dig this” to draw attention to an important point—he covered topics such as jazz, the civil rights movement, peace activism, education, freedom of speech -- and the life issues.
Hentoff became involved in peace activism partly through his acquaintance with A. J. Muste, a pacifist and civil disobedience strategist whose work influenced Martin Luther King. Hentoff would eventually write a biography of Muste and edit a collection of the pacifist thinker’s writings. Along with Muste and Dorothy Day, he also participated in a civil disobedience action in New York City meant to protest preparations for nuclear war. Later, Hentoff accompanied Muste and others to a meeting with US-Ambassador-to-the-United Nations Adlai Stevenson, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get Stevenson to take a stand against the Vietnam War.
Hentoff continued his opposition to American involvement in Vietnam through his writing and other public statements, commenting in a 1968 radio broadcast “I think this is still news to the American public that we have been committing war crimes in that country.” Such anti-war sentiments, combined with his criticism of the FBI for its surveillance of American citizens, earned Hentoff the Bureau’s enmity and his own FBI file.
The great sea change in Hentoff’s career that would lead to his becoming a Consistent Life Ethic champion was his acceptance, relatively late in life, of a pro-life position on abortion. Hentoff knew little about the pro-life cause, having lived his life surrounded by pro-choice people, and identified the cause as being rooted in religious beliefs he did not share. He had even served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union during a period when the organization contributed to a successful effort to make abortion more accessible in New York State.
Hentoff’s dramatic change on abortion occurred in the early 1980s as the result of studying and writing about the Baby Doe cases. These cases, as Hentoff reported them, were episodes in which infants with disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome and spina bifida were, by their parent’s request, intentionally denied significant, even life-saving, medical care. A particularly disturbing case was of a baby boy with Down’s Syndrome in Bloomington, Indiana, who had a malformed esophagus that prevented him from ingesting food. Rather than performing surgery to repair the esophagus—and feeding the boy intravenously until he could eat normally—his parents opted to allow the baby to starve to death. Hentoff was outraged by such cases and disturbed by how so many people on the political Left did not share his outrage.
The view among many Hentoff knew, both in journalistic and political circles, was that the parents’ right to privacy should allow them to make these kinds of decisions about their children’s medical care. Perhaps the most significant defense of the parents’ alleged privacy rights that Hentoff encountered came from an ACLU staffer specializing in reproductive issues. This woman argued that the right to deny certain types of medical care from a girl infant with spina bifida “was really an extension of reproductive freedom rights—a woman’s right to choose.” While Hentoff disagreed with the ACLU staffer’s conclusion, he did follow her line of argument by connecting the cases of neglect and even infanticide that so disturbed him to the issue of abortion.
As he later recounted:
"I began to recognize the zealotry of the abortion-rights movement. And I also began to question their “evidence” that the unborn were not entitled to any rights. I began to read the medical textbooks that physicians in prenatal care read—not pro-life books, but such standard texts as The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment…
I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that life is a continuum from fertilization to birth to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion, for example, is artificial. It is the life of a developing being that is being killed. The euphemisms for an aborted fetus—“the product of conception” and “a clump of cells”—are what George Orwell might have called newspeak… [emphasis in original]
As time went on, I began to understand that there is much more to abortion than abortion itself. The mindset—the ability to regard as just and necessary the killing of at least 1.3 million developing human beings a year—helps strengthen the consistent ethic of death in the nation—including the discounting of the Baby Jane Does and the rise of support for “assisted suicide.” "
His desire to stand against the “consistent ethic of death” made Hentoff an outspoken critic of euthanasia and assisted suicide along with abortion.
Such a stance earned Hentoff more than a little hostility. As he recalled, three editors at the Voice all stopped speaking to him after he became pro-life, although he later had a rapprochement with one of them. A much closer source of criticism was his own wife, Margot, who was fiercely pro-choice and had, as Hentoff put it, “utter disdain for all pro-lifers, including, intermittently, me.” Moreover, the couple’s difference on this issue had a more-than-ideological significance: roughly 20 years before Nat’s pro-life conversion, at an uncertain time in their marriage, Margot had had an abortion. Despite their disagreement on abortion, and the extraordinary personal history they had with abortion, the Hentoffs managed to remain married for the rest of their lives.
Hentoff found new colleagues within the organized pro-life movement, but his views created frictions with this community as well. Speaking before an “almost entirely Catholic Republican” audience at a Right to Life convention in Columbus, Ohio, Hentoff urged his listeners to oppose capital punishment, war preparations, and Ronald Reagan’s cuts to the supplemental food program for women, infants, and children. This prompted an angry reaction from the audience, some members of which rushed up to Hentoff afterwards to inform him that his benighted views were because he “had not yet found God.” (Such comments were perhaps balanced by a Jewish pro-choicer’s remark that Hentoff was “a self-hating Jew” and “that all authentic modern Jews were pro-abortion.”)
As his combination of views might suggest, Hentoff had come to embrace the Consistent Ethic of Life. He explicitly affirmed his acceptance of the Ethic in various contexts, recording an interview for the organization the Seamless Garment Network, now known as the Consistent Life Network. Although not an absolutist on nonviolence—he acknowledged that he would use violence in response to a direct attack on his children and described himself as “an imperfect pacifist”—Hentoff generally opposed the major socially approved forms of killing. At a 1992 conference, he expressed his opposition to the recent Persian Gulf War and “practically all wars,” and by the decade’s end, he would write scathing criticism of the Clinton administration’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. His memoir Speaking Freely praised such Consistent Life Ethic stalwarts as Rachel MacNair and Mary Meehan.
By the turn of the 21st century, Hentoff could be considered a hero for advocates of the Ethic. His views regrettably did not stay constant, however.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Hentoff reacted true to his civil libertarian roots, warning of repression and urging adherence to the Bill of Rights. He soon became a ferocious critic of George W. Bush and his administration. In one crucial respect, however, Hentoff supported Bush: he endorsed the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Disturbed by the sufferings of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Hentoff had reached the conclusion that Bush’s war of “regime change” was the solution.
Hentoff noted that “friends with whom I had marched against the Vietnam War were appalled by my apostasy.” Supporters of a Consistent Ethic of Life could share the sentiment: that such a gifted advocate of the Ethic would become a supporter of the Iraq War was bitterly disappointing. Moreover, Hentoff’s departure from his previous anti-war stance did not stop with Iraq. After years of reporting on human rights violations in nations such as Sudan, Hentoff urged additional US military interventions to overthrow the repressive regimes responsible for such violations. Not content with supporting ongoing wars, Hentoff felt moved to call for more.
In Hentoff’s defense, two factors mitigated, even if they did not excuse, his new-found hawkishness. First, his support for American wars was driven not by fears of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction but by concern for people suffering under tyrannical regimes in nations such as Iraq, Myanmar, or Sudan. His motives were generous ones, similar to those that drove him to defend the disabled and preborn. While endorsing American military might as an instrument for advancing human rights was woefully misguided, the underlying impulse was an essentially consistent one.
Second, Hentoff’s new hawkish stance did not make him any less critical overall of the American national security establishment than he had been in his anti-Vietnam War days. His columns in support of the Iraq War, for example, were vastly outnumbered by his columns attacking the Bush administration for its use of torture, indefinite detention, and other civil liberties violations. This oppositional stance continued when Barack Obama became president, as Hentoff wrote numerous hard-hitting articles on the Obama administration’s use of targeted killing by drones.
Meanwhile, Hentoff continued into his last years to write in opposition of abortion, assisted suicide, and the death penalty. Yet even taking into account his continued defense of preborn lives, the incarcerated, and those at risk for euthanasia, Hentoff at this stage could no longer be considered an advocate of the Consistent Ethic of Life.
What is his legacy? While advocates of the Ethic cannot fully claim him as one of their own, much that Hentoff wrote and said can inform and inspire those committed to defending life. His speech “The Indivisible Fight for Life,” for example, remains a classic articulation of the Ethic. He will continue to be an important figure for non-religious or otherwise unconventional pro-lifers. No doubt many will continue to value his writings on the Bill of Rights and jazz.
Above all, though, Hentoff reflected a simple but valuable credo that he adopted while still a young man: “I decided that when you know exactly what someone is going to say in answer to every single question you ask, you ought to put your nickel in some other machine.” Whether one agreed or disagreed with him, whether one was encouraged and disappointed by him, no one could reliably predict how Nat Hentoff would answer a single question. The world was a more interesting place for his presence in it. And the world is a wiser place for having been challenged by his wit and his intellectual integrity.