Nat Hentoff, Rest in Peace

Posted on January 10, 2017 By

One of our earliest endorsers, Nat Hentoff passed away January 7, 2017 at the age of 91. The photo to the right comes from when he appeared as one of four interviewees in our video from the 1980s, back when we were still the Seamless Garment Network, which is why the video was called The Seamless Garment. (The seamless garment and the consistent life ethic are the same thing).


He was a writer for the Village Voice and frequently had pieces in such places as The Progressive magazine. He was especially well-known for his free-speech absolutism, including writing a delightful book called Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee. Listing a variety of places where speech was censored not by government but by intolerance, pro-life feminists and consistent-lifers had their stories told.

It startled his progressive friends (and wife) when he became pro-life. It lost him some writing gigs, but he stuck to his principles.

It happened because he was shocked by the Baby Doe cases, in which infanticide of babies with disabilities was advocated by means of denying needed medical care. The care would have been offered a non-disabled child. The child’s death was the goal.

Nat came to realize that feticide for the same reason was just as much an outrage. Then he reasoned that feticide for any other reason wasn’t acceptable either. People in the circles he ran around in were quite startled. We were delighted to have a good friend.

In October of 1986 he gave an excellent speech explaining his views, now a consistent-life classic, called The Indivisible Fight for Life.

He also wrote about his experiences in an excellent piece called “Pro-Choice Bigots: A View from the Pro-life Left” 

We encourage everyone to read the full articles on-line. To give you a taste, here are quotations of his which we ran as the Quotation of the Week in our short weekly e-newsletter, Peace & Life Connections:

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From The Indivisible Fight for Life, 1986:

I remain an atheist, a Jewish atheist . . . For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down’s syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called “late abortion.” These infants were born. 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. And I began to find out, in a different way, how the stereotypes about pro-lifers work. When you’re one of them and you read about the stereotypes, you get a sort of different perspective.

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From “You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Be Prolife,” U.S. Catholic, March 1989, 28-30.

A primary objection, I was told, to the seamless-garment approach was that it would dilute the anti-abortion message, and that was more important than any other because the unborn were being killed right now . . . I understand the point, but the anti-abortion movement would be stronger if it had more members — members across the spectrum of American politics, religion, and no religion . . . It’s worth remembering that even if the Supreme Court does in the years ahead add more restrictions to abortion and even if it were to reverse Roe v. Wade, the abortion battle would continue. All the more so if Roe v. Wade were overturned because then each state would have to decide whether or not it would permit abortion.​


After reading the above, John S. Walker added the following tribute:

Nat Hentoff was far more than you stated in your response to his passing at age 91. For as long as I can remember Nat Hentoff advocated for the liberation of black people in America from white tyranny. Most of us felt this in his uncanny knowledge and advocacy of black music and the artists who performed. From 1946 until 1980 his essays, criticisms, liner note forays were stimulating, enticing and visceral; always keen enough to reveal the essence of the music both melodically and political. Like Mr. Hentoff, I , too was hypnotized by the music of Charlie Parker.

Self-acclamations of atheism mean very little when such a life is guided by principle and the belief of human justice. So we bid adieu to another crucified Jew. May he now enjoy his renewed acquaintance with Mr. Parker, John Coltrane and all the others who praised God with their music.


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