The Corner

Nat Hentoff, Memory Eternal

We have lost a great writer, civil libertarian, free speech absolutist, jazz historian, and pro-life advocate, Nat Hentoff, who died today at 91.

As an atheist, Nat took much heat from his fellow liberals and rigid fundamentalists among the “free thinking” crowd for standing against abortion, euthanasia, and opposing protocols that would leave babies with spina bifida and other disabilities to die without attempts at curative treatment.

In fact, he may have lost prime writing gigs in the Village Voice and other prominent liberal newspapers and magazines, he believed, because of his apostasy from liberal cultural orthodoxy.

Nat was a good friend–his decision. When he was named a Great Defender of Life by the Human Life Foundation in 2005, he asked that I introduce him. Here is part of what I said:

Nat Hentoff is a superb writer and first class public intellectual. He is a man of consistent, steadfast principle, a moral purist in an age of hand-wringing accommodationists.

This unyielding consistency has made him an iconoclast’s iconoclast. Indeed, Hentoff has described himself as “a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer.” Talk about cutting against almost every societal grain: No wonder he both thrills—and upsets—so many people!

Hentoff’s style is as individualistic as are his principles. In an age of shouters, he is quiet. In an era of facile talking heads, he remains profound. Where others agitate and self-aggrandize, he relies on steadfast cogent argument to persuade. Where contemporary pundits often tailor their views to cater to the powerful or popular, Hentoff courageously remains a challenger of orthodoxies.

Hentoff’s advocacy cuts a wide swath across what are often called ‘the life issues.’ Indeed, his unyielding stand over many years against abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, unethical human medical experimentation, and the ongoing bioethical construction of a “duty to die” has made him a moral beacon for those who believe that universal human liberty depends on society’s embrace of the intrinsic equality of all human life.

And for decades he has connected the dots for his vast audience, expertly charting the consequences of our steady, but. not always slow, slide down the slippery slope toward a veritable culture of death.

When last I spoke with Nat, he was in badly failing health and said the one thing that kept him going was writing.

Indeed, Nat was a writer to his bone marrow. Here is an example of his vibrant advocacy. From “Pro-Choice Bigots: A View from the Pro-Life Left,” in which he recounted his blackballing from liberalism, published in The New Republic in 1992:

Being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual–Williams Obstetrics, for example–points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born “should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman.”

Nor, biologically, does it make any sense to draw life-or-death lines at viability. Once implantation takes place, this being has all the genetic information within that makes each human being unique. And he or she embodies continually developing human life from that point on.

It misses a crucial point to say that the extermination can take place because the brain has not yet functioned or because that thing is not yet a “person.” Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.

Nat Hentoff was an indefatigable writer, a man whose deeply ingrained integrity compelled him to willingly lose good friends and professional opportunities if that is what it took to remain steadfast on behalf of causes he thought to be right. We will not see his like again.

Memory Eternal.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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