Nat Hentoff—author, jazz critic, and Village Voice columnist for 50 years—died this weekend at the age of 91. Hentoff was a liberal, progressive atheist—yet he profoundly shaped my Christian belief and practice.
In 1986, when he was already a wizened old civil libertarian and secularist pundit, Hentoff researched a number of high-profile cases of disabled infants who had been denied simple, life-saving procedures and instead allowed to die of starvation and dehydration. The resulting story, “The Awful Privacy of Baby Doe,” was published in The Atlantic and marked the awakening of Hentoff’s conscience on abortion.
He had to admit, he later explained in a lecture given to Americans United for Life, that the slope from abortion to infanticide to euthanasia is “not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it”:
Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.
But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.
And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying—this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island—at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”
That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row—due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran—as you well know—Infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.
His words, although based in reason, not faith, demonstrate that all truth is God’s truth and that the truth of the Bible governs the nature of reality in ways that even the unbeliever can recognize.
Hentoff’s growing awareness of the nature of abortion-on-demand wasn’t an isolated incident; the 1980s raised consciousness for a lot of us on the issue of abortion. In 1987, a year following his Atlantic essay, I, too, became pro-life. For me it was the result of viewing The Silent Scream, a video showing via ultrasound a first-trimester abortion taking place.
As a cradle Christian who had never doubted Jesus or my saving faith in him, I, like Hentoff, had before my pro-life conversion relied on my own “rehearsed responses.” I had never needed to defend my faith (to others or, more importantly, myself) until I began to apply my Christian beliefs to the issue of abortion amid the culture wars.