Jewish World Review June 12, 2006/ 16 Sivan, 5766

Nat Hentoff

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Insisting on life | A longtime friend of mine is married to a doctor who also performs abortions. At the dinner table one recent evening, their 9-year-old son — having heard a word whose meaning he didn't know — asked, "What is an abortion?" His mother, choosing her words carefully, described the procedure in simple terms.

"But," said her son, "that means killing the baby." The mother then explained that there are certain months during which an abortion cannot be performed, with very few exceptions. The 9-year-old shook his head. "But," he said, "it doesn't matter what month. It still means killing the babies."

Hearing the story, I wished it could be repeated to the justices of the Supreme Court, in the hope that at least five of them might act on this 9-year-old's clarity of thought and vision.

The boy's spontaneous insistence on the primacy of life also reminded me of a powerful pro-life speaker and writer who, many years ago, helped me become a pro-lifer. He was a preacher, a black preacher. He said: "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of a higher order than the right to life.

"That," he continued, "was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore out of your right to be concerned."

This passionate reverend used to warn: "Don't let the pro-choicers convince you that a fetus isn't a human being. That's how the whites dehumanized us ... The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify what they wanted to do — and not even feel they'd done anything wrong."

That preacher was Jesse Jackson. Later, he decided to run for the presidency — and it was a credible campaign that many found inspiring in its focus on what still had to be done on civil rights. But Jackson had by now become "pro-choice" — much to the appreciation of most of those in the liberal base.

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The last time I saw Jackson was years later, on a train from Washington to New York. I told him of a man nominated, but not yet confirmed, to a seat on a federal circuit court of appeals. This candidate was a strong supporter of capital punishment — which both the Rev. Jackson and I oppose, since it involves the irreversible taking of a human life by the state.

I asked Jackson if he would hold a press conference in Washington, criticizing the nomination, and he said he would. The reverend was true to his word; the press conference took place; but that nominee was confirmed to the federal circuit court. However, I appreciated Jackson's effort.

On that train, I also told Jackson that I'd been quoting — in articles, and in talks with various groups — from his compelling pro-life statements. I asked him if he'd had any second thoughts on his reversal of those views.

Usually quick to respond to any challenge that he is not consistent in his positions, Jackson paused, and seemed somewhat disquieted at my question. Then he said to me, "I'll get back to you on that." I still patiently await what he has to say.

As time goes on, my deepening concern with the consequences of abortion is that its validation by the Supreme Court, as a constitutional practice, helps support the convictions of those who, in other controversies — euthanasia, assisted suicide and the "futility doctrine" by certain hospital ethics committees — believe that there are lives not worth continuing.

Around the time of my conversation with Jackson on the train, I attended a conference on euthanasia at Clark College in Worcester, Mass. There, I met Derek Humphry, the founder of the Hemlock Society, and already known internationally as a key proponent of the "death with dignity" movement.

He told me that for some years in this country, he had considerable difficulty getting his views about assisted suicide and, as he sees it, compassionate euthanasia into the American press.

"But then," Humphry told me, "a wonderful thing happened. It opened all the doors for me."

"What was that wonderful thing?" I asked.

"Roe v. Wade," he answered.

The devaluing of human life — as the 9-year-old at the dinner table put it more vividly — did not end with making abortion legal, and therefore, to some people, moral. The word "baby" does not appear in Roe v. Wade — let alone the word "killing."

And so, the termination of "lives not worth living" goes on.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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