A couple weeks ago I got a call from Nat Hentoff. Hentoff, 86, is a legendary civil libertarian and journalist. He's at the point is his career when he should just be sitting back and receiving lifetime achievement awards. But there's one problem.
Nat Hentoff is pro-life. He had called from New York to thank me for some pro-life columns I had written. I was stunned; Hentoff is one of my favorite writers, and him reaching out is a tremendous honor. I'm a jazz fan and have been reading Hentoff's columns for 25 years. (The man actually met Duke Ellington!) We talked about our jazz favorites, including my favorite singer Kurt Elling. Hentoff is still mentally sharp, even if he is doing physical therapy for various age-related issues.
Hentoff's conversion from pro-choice to pro-life, and the fallout that resulted, is explained in an essay in the new book, The Debate Since Roe: Making the Case Against Abortion 1975-2010. It's a compendium of essays from the journal Human Life Review.
A famous liberal who was a staple at the Village Voice and who had a column in the Washington Post, in the 1980s Hentoff actually let himself be swayed by evidence about abortion. It happened when Hentoff was reporting on the case of Baby Jane Doe.
Baby Jane Doe was a Long Island infant born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which is excess fluid in the cranium. With surgery, spina-bifida babies can grow up to be productive adults. Yet Baby Jane's parents, on their doctor's advice, had refused both surgery to close her spine and a shunt to drain the fluid from her brain. In resisting the federal government's attempt to enforce treatment, the parents pleaded privacy.
As Hentoff told the Washington Times in a 1989 profile, his "curiosity was not so much the case itself but the press coverage." Everyone on the media was echoing the same talking points about "women's rights" and "privacy."
"Whenever I see that kind of story, where everybody agrees, I know there's something wrong," Hentoff told the Times. says. "I finally figured out they were listening to the [parents'] lawyer."
Hentoff dug into the case and the abortion industry at large, and what he found shocked him. He came across the published reports of experiments in what doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital called "early death as a management option" for infants "considered to have little or no hope of achieving meaningful 'humanhood.'" He talked with handicapped people who could have been killed by abortion.
Hentoff's liberal friends didn't appreciate his conversion: "They were saying, 'What's the big fuss about? If the parents had known she was going to come in this way, they would have had an abortion. So why don't you consider it a late abortion and go on to something else? Here were liberals, decent people, fully convinced themselves that they were for individual rights and liberties but willing to send into eternity these infants because they were imperfect, inconvenient, costly. I saw the same attitude on the part of the same kinds of people toward abortion, and I thought it was pretty horrifying."
The reaction from America's corrupt fourth estate was instant. Hentoff, a Guggenheim fellow and author of dozens of books, was a pariah. Several of his colleagues at the Village Voice, which had run his column since the 1950s, stopped talking to him. When the National Press Foundation wanted to give him a lifetime achievement award, there was a bitter debate amongst members whether Hentoff should even be honored (he was). Then they stopped running his columns. You heard his name less and less. In December 2008, the Village Voice officially let him go.
When journalist Dan Rather was revealed to have poor news judgment, if not outright malice, for using fake documents to try and change the course of a presidential election, he was given a new TV show and a book deal -- not to mention a guest spot on The Daily Show. The media has even attempted a resuscitation of anti-Semite Helen Thomas, who was recently interviewed in Playboy.
By accepting the truth about abortion, and telling that truth, Nat Hentoff may be met with silence by his peers when he goes to his reward. The shame will be theirs, not his.