Nat Hentoff has died at the age of 91. Hentoff was a life-long liberal who actually believed in things that liberals purport to believe in: freedom of speech, civil liberties and tolerance. He was a committed pro-lifer which in his social circles was akin to supporting cannibalism. Hentoff didn’t care. Throughout his life he did what he thought right, consequences to him be hanged.
Here is a column he wrote on my birthday in 1989:
Planned Parenthood recently assembled 13 distinguished civil rights leaders so that they might express their scorn for the notion that there is any moral connection between the Operation Rescue demonstrations “and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.”
The leaders — including Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, John Jacob, Mary King and Roger Wilkins — deplored the pro-lifers’ “protests to deny Americans their constitutional right to freedom of choice. They want the Constitution rewritten.” And in the unkindest cut of all, these leaders — once themselves demonstrators against laws they considered profoundly unjust — compared the nonviolent Operation Rescue workers to “the segregationists who fought desperately to block black Americans from access to their rights.”
Actually, however, a more accurate analogy would link these pro-lifers to the civil rights workers of the 19th century, the Abolitionists, who would not be deterred from their goal of ensuring equal rights for all human beings in this land. They believed, as these 13 civil rights leaders later did, that social change comes only after social upheaval.
What the Abolitionists were opposing was the rule of law — ultimately underlined by the Supreme Court in its Dred Scott decision — that people of African descent, whether free or slaves, had “never been regarded as a part of the people or citizens of the State.” They had no rights whatever. They were the property of their owners, no more. The Abolitionists did indeed want the Constitution rewritten.
Now, the pro-lifers, aware that the Supreme Court has declared itself in error before, are protesting the holding in Roe v. Wade that “the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.” Although that decision also spoke of a time when the fetus becomes viable and then may be protected by the state, in fact we have abortion on demand.
As Justice Harry Blackmun said in Doe v. Bolton — decided on the same day as Roe v. Wade — the mother’s health is paramount, and that includes, among other things, “physical, emotional, psychological, familial” factors. Abortions can be obtained for these reasons, and more.
So, like the slave, the fetus is property and its owner can dispose of it. Increasingly, for instance, women are undergoing prenatal testing to find out the gender of the developing human being inside them. If it’s the wrong sex, it is aborted.
Pro-lifers who maintain the fetus should have equal protection under the law are not limited to those driven by religious convictions. There is the biological fact that after conception, a being has been formed with unique human characteristics. He or she, if allowed to survive, will be unlike anyone born before. From their point of view, therefore, pro-lifers are engaged in a massive civil rights movement. In 16 years, after all, there have been some 20 million abortions.
Some pro-lifers, like some of the abolitionists, feel that nonviolence, however direct, is insufficient. They are of the order of John Brown. As noted by James McPherson in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Brown stalked out of a meeting of the New England Antislavery Society, grumbling, “Talk! Talk! Talk! That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action — action!”
Those relatively few — and invariably isolated — pro-lifers who follow John Brown’s flag are surely not in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and the 13 civil rights leaders have reason to keep them at a far distance. But Operation Rescue, and similar demonstrations, are not violent. Entrances are blocked, and so they were in some nonviolent civil rights demonstrations. There is shouting, some of it not very civil, back and forth across the lines, but so there was in the 1960s.
The only actual violence connected with Operation Rescue has been inflicted by the police, most viciously, in Atlanta where one of the Planned Parenthood’s 13 civil rights leaders is mayor. A member of the Atlanta City Council, Josea Williams — himself a close associate of Martin Luther King — has said: “We who were the leaders of the movement in the ’50s and ’60s are now political leaders. And we are doing the same thing to demonstrators that George Wallace and Bull Connor did to us.”
Hentoff was an atheist. However, I hope that when he came before God for his Particular Judgment hundreds of millions of little character witnesses successfully pleaded his cause.