Jazz critic and longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff died Saturday at age 91. Though a self-identified man of the left, he was hard to pigeonhole. This op-ed appeared in the Inquirer on Feb 28, 1988.


As a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I am nonetheless considered a bewildering heretic by many of the ACLU's officers and members. They can't understand how I became pro-life.

The lawyer for the ACLU's Reproductive Rights Division refers to me rather contemptuously as having been "born again." Yet I remain an atheist. What changed me on the question of abortion were a number of handicapped infants who were killed by their parents and doctors because their "quality of life" was regarded as below standard.

As a reporter, I started to cover "Baby Doe" cases from a civil libertarian perspective. These infants, being born, were entitled to the full constitutional rights that every one else in this country, of whatever age, is guaranteed. Often forgotten was the constitutional fact that these infants had independent rights - independent of what parents wanted to happen to them.

As I got more into the story, I discovered something else. I had not paid much attention to the debate on abortion. I had never written in favor of abortion because I was vaguely troubled by it, but then I had never written in opposition to abortion. I had heard various pro-life advocates speak of "the slippery slope," but I hadn't paid much attention to that metaphor.

However, while interviewing physicians, parents, congressional aides, members of Congress, ACLU lawyers. and fellow reporters about the Baby Does, I was often told: "Why are you getting so excited about these defective infants? If the parents had known what they were going to get, they would have had it aborted. Why don't you - like the parents and doctors - simply consider this a late abortion?"

Well, as a civil libertarian, I couldn't do that. Whatever else Roe v. Wade allows, it does not permit the killing of a born person. What these people were saying, however, made the "slippery slope" very real and immediate to me. Since 1973, at least a million and a half developing human beings have been killed every year. And it became very evident to me that this cheapening of human life had indeed expanded beyond abortion to handicapped infants, also putting in peril the elderly, the severely handicapped, bedridden, and incompetent.

We have entered into a terrifying age of euthanasia; and again, the contempt for human life exemplified by abortion has had a great deal to do with our present rush to end treatment of the elderly and others who cannot defend themselves from those - judges, physicians, and families - who have decided that these patients' "quality of life" is not worth preserving.

Once I saw that the effect of abortion was pervading the entire society, I began to express my pro-life views in print.

My journalistic base is the Village Voice, a newspaper whose politics are on the left (as are mine) and which had never, in its entire 30-year history, had an article opposing abortion. I have written often and vigorously on behalf of full equality for women in all other areas, but to some of the feminists on the Voice, none of that counted. No one who opposes abortion, it was made clear to me, could be a true supporter of women's rights or, for that matter, a decent human being. To this day two of the Voice's women editors no longer speak to me.

At first, I regarded myself, rather proudly, as a unique paladin of the preborn on the left. But I gradually discovered that there were others like me around the country. Closet pro-lifers, as it were, who wrote to me saying that it was encouraging to find they were not alone.

Around the same time, I was much impressed by a concept that had been developed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. He called it "the seamless garment" or "the consistent ethic of life." Those who are pro-life, Bernardin said, should be pro-life across the board in order to be consistent. That is, they should be against capital punishment, against the nuclear arms race, against government policies that militated against the poor, against arming the contras, and so forth.

A number of the pro-life people I was hearing from and meeting had agreed with that concept long before Bernardin had ever thought of the term. A good many pro-lifers do not agree, preferring to focus on abortion rather than deal with the "seamless garment."

The importance, however, of the growing number of anti-abortion people who adhere to a "consistent ethic of life" is that they have broken the stereotype of pro-lifers. For years, the pro-abortionists have delighted in categorizing all pro-lifers as right-wing, fiercely in favor of capital punishment and supporters of ever-growing defense budgets, no matter how little that leaves for the poor.

But the fight for the lives of the preborn cannot be so simply compartmentalized as a right-versus-left political struggle. It is more profound and far more central to the future of civilization than a question of partisan politics. And as more people realize this - because of the diversity of the pro-lifers - some of them too may come over to the side of life without the fear of being automatically compartmentalized as political reactionaries.

I keep hearing from liberals who are rethinking their previously mechanical responses to abortion. Some of them are now openly pro-life and they tell their colleagues and friends what I do whenever I'm asked how come I've become a heretic.

At the start, I underline a point made by Mary Meehan, a longtime civil rights activist and one of the most illuminating pro-life writers in the country. The left, she has emphasized, has traditionally existed to support the powerless, the helpless, the exploited - from women in the cotton mills in the last century to the migrant workers today. Who is more powerless and helpless than a fetus, says Mary Meehan. The left betrays its tradition and principles by supporting the killing of these utterly powerless developing human beings.

And then I come back to the "slippery slope." In only 15 years, we have come to resemble pre-Hitler Germany in finding reasons to kill a growing number of born people of all ages. And the barriers to killing keep coming down. Abortion has had a great deal to do with smoothing the way for what Cardinal John O'Connor of New York calls "the consistent ethic of death."