To be liberal and pro-life
NAT HENTOFF, CHAMPION OF ‘INCONVENIENT LIFE’
by Cathryn Donohoe; THE WASHINGTON TIMES
November 6, 1989, Monday, Final Edition, November 6, 1989
NEW YORK — Until 1984, he had not given much thought to abortion, he says. He had accepted the view of all the women he knew, including his wife, that the right to an abortion is part of a woman’s fundamental right to privacy, one that allows her control over her body and, by extension, her life.
Then came the case of Baby Jane Doe. She was a Long Island infant born with spina bifida (a condition in which the spinal cord is unprotected because the spinal column does not close properly before birth) and hydrocephalus (excess fluid in the cranium).
With surgery, spina-bifida babies can grow up to be bright, productive adults who might need braces to walk, Mr. Hentoff insists. Yet Baby Jane’s parents, on their doctors’ 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.
What first piqued Mr. Hentoff’s curiosity was not so much the case itself but the press coverage. All the papers and the networks were using the same words to say the same thing, he says.
“Whenever I see that kind of story, where everybody agrees, I know there’s something wrong,” he says. “I finally figured out they were listening to the [parents’] lawyer.”
He went after the story, later publishing it in The Atlantic as “The Awful Privacy of Baby Doe.” In running it down, he found himself digging into the notorious, 2-year-old case of the first Infant Doe. That Bloomington, Ind., Down’s syndrome baby died of starvation over six days when his parents, who did not want a retarded child, refused surgery for his deformed esophagus.
Then Mr. Hentoff 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 happy handicapped adults whose parents could have killed them but didn’t. It changed him.
But as he was fretting over Baby Jane, he says, civil libertarians, liberal congressmen and old ACLU friends were trying to steer him away.
“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 youconsider 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.”
Mr. Hentoff has a pet phrase he draws from novelist William Burroughs. The moment of truth comes, he says, “when you see the naked lunch at the end of the fork.” Once he heard the phrase, “late abortion,” he knew what was at the end of the fork.
“The ‘slippery slope’ business began to make sense to me then,” he says. “From there it was ineluctable – not just abortion, but euthanasia as well.”