Net Hentoff was one of a handful of writers who probably altered the course of my adult life. Who else but a Jewish atheist civil libertarian pro-life columnist for the Village Voice could have inspired this lukewarm Catholic half-Jewish red-diaper-baby-on-my-great-uncle's-side kid to get active in the pro-life movement?
I first heard of Nat Hentoff in 1989 or '90 when he wrote an article for the Village Voice on West Hartford's mistreatment of pro-lifers during a large protest. "Liberal town cheers police brutality" was the headline. Bobbi Roesner, who had the angry feminist column at The Hartford Courant back then, wept bitter tears over Hentoff's betrayal of the pro-abortion sisterhood. But this 19-year old pro-life liberal loved it.
Hentoff next crossed my radar right after Bill Clinton's election. I read The New Republic religiously in those days and Hentoff published a piece in it on what he had suffered from his fellow leftists since coming out as a pro-lifer. "Pro-Choice Bigots" was the article's subheading.
That headline might not sound as shocking today but in the early 90s, when pro-abortion sentiment was at its height, it was pretty darn brave. Everything about Hentoff was brave. The article - plus my guilt over having voted for Clinton - goaded me into action. I wrote to Feminists for Life, a group recommended by Hentoff in his TNR piece, and got on their mailing list.
The End Of The Beginning
And that's how the first stage of my pro-life activism began, running with the pro-life Left, to whatever extent such a thing existed. I got the Public Interest Law Group to fund an internship for me at FFL's Washington office when I was in law school, then served on FFL's Board, and also on the Seamless Garment Network's board, attending Call to Action conferences with SGN, having dinner at Catholic Worker houses in Detroit, manning a table next to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians at a Yale gathering of pro-life liberals, and on and on.
My time as a pro-life lefty is described in more detail here. Since writing that piece people have asked what caused me to go right politically. From the perspective of 20 years distance, the answers to that question seem somewhat dated. But not where it counts. That is, nothing that has happened since then would cause me to go back to my liberal roots. If anything, the events of the last 20 years have only confirmed my decision to put my hands to the particular plow to which I was called and not look back.
It was, first and foremost, partial-birth abortion. I had been a pro-life Democrat all my life. I thought that if only I could make my liberal friends understand that they had made a philosophical error, that as compassionate liberals who care about the most vulnerable we should be the ones who are pro-life and it is those other guys, mean conservatives with no love for the downtrodden, who should be pro-abortion, then my liberal friends would see the light.
Partial-birth abortion shattered that illusion. It is a procedure by which the abortionist pulls the child about 4/5th out of the womb, sticks forceps into the back of the child’s head, sucking out the brains and crushing the skull, before delivering the now-dead child. As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who never voted pro-life except to ban this procedure, said at the time, it was “too close to infanticide.”
Seeing liberals of my acquaintance as well as in Congress support even this barbaric procedure made me realize that their support for abortion was not some mere intellectual error. There was something willful here. Nor did it escape my notice that, however consistent I believed myself to be in being a pro-life Democrat, it was the GOP taking control of Congress in the mid 1990s, after 40 years out of power, that made the ban even possible. It was vetoed several times by President Clinton and then signed into law twice by President Bush, the Supreme Court finally upholding the law on the second try.
Turned Off By Bigotry
The second thing to turn me from the left was anti-Catholicism. Our friends on the left understand themselves to be the sworn enemy of racism, sexism, and every other discriminatory –ism, which they believe to be largely a phenomenon of the right. But the casual hatred of my faith that is taken as a mark of sophistication on the left eventually drove me from them. Whether as a 20-something liberal or a 40-something conservative,
I try first and foremost to be a Catholic.
Just last month I attended a UConn Law School symposium where Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy addressed a roomful of powerful people who viewed religious liberty exemptions to same-sex marriage and the Obamacare contraceptive mandate with horror. Malloy told that august gathering how he overcame the “insensitivity and discrimination” of his benighted Catholic upbringing. He promised them that that he would force religious dissenters to comply with liberal dogma and that he would have state taxpayers make up any loss of federal funding to Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
This same Governor appointed to our State Supreme Court a legislator responsible for the most outrageous attack on the religious liberty of the Catholic Church in Connecticut in living memory. Such episodes serve only to remind me that the left is not my political tribe. Indeed, they seem to view orthodox believers, Catholic and otherwise, as a cancer on the body politic that needs to be eradicated. Why be a part of that?
So partial-birth abortion and anti-Catholicism peeled me off the left. And when I looked at the right, I did not find the meanness I expected.
The caricature of the right hating the poor was untrue. The bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s – which I originally opposed – happened because people on the right were thinking creatively about how best to help the poor. Government handouts, they argued, did more harm than good. The Weekly Standard, in its earliest days, explored alternatives rooted in Catholic social teaching. In fact, the right in general seemed far more open to be challenged by Catholic teaching on, for instance, the death penalty, than the left would ever be on abortion.
All of the right’s prudential policy judgments are, of course, debatable, and that debate continues. But for me, at least, it was following the “true north” of my Catholic faith that led me from left to right.
And the pro-life cord that connects my leftist past with my conservative present begins somewhat with Nat Hentoff, who understood that being a liberal who cares for the oppressed means caring for the unborn too, and who had the decency to say so, no matter what it cost him with his fellow lefties.
He was an inspiration. And a hero. RIP, Nat Hentoff.