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Remembering My Departure from the Pro-Life Left

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.




Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • zebbart

    Interesting. Following the Church wherever she may lead has led me more to the left as I am turning 40. Certainly not toward liberalism or worse yet toward the Democratic Party, but closer to socialism. The American Right’s libertarian economics and property-first social morality don’t square with the Church’s teaching – especially that of the Fathers.

    • Paul Adams

      But, as St. John Paul II stated in no uncertain terms, there is no form of socialism that is compatible with Catholicism. As Pius XI put it in Quadragesimo Anno, where he introduces the term “social justice” to Catholic social teaching, “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” You have to choose. (To help you, I recommend Tony Esolen’s superb book on Leo XIII, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching and, of course, St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus.)

      • zebbart

        It was reading Quadragesimo Anno that made me begin to question the view that pure free market capitalism was ok. Pope Pius was using “socialist” in a strict sense, the sense which abolishes private property and collectivizes all production. In that, I agree with him. But as Pope Benedict XVI said, “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.” Pure socialism is wrong, but the return of a public commonwealth is called for by Catholic teaching. We already accept the socialization of some goods, like defense, transportation infrastructure, primary education, care for the elderly, criminal justice, and fire and disaster intervention. It is well within the mandate of Catholic social teaching to add to that list medical care, secondary education, and, in light of Q.A., the provision of capital to all people.

        • Thomas Storck

          I think a little more needs to be said about this.

          You’re certainly correct about free-market economics – it cannot be squared with Catholic teaching. But Pius XI makes it clear that even those forms of true socialism that advocate more moderate economic programs are wrong, not necessarily because of their economic programs, but because they are part of a historical movement that has always been hostile to the Church. See QA #117. But historically there were groups that called themselves socialist, such as the British Labour party, that always received strong support by Catholics. Sometime in the 1920s the English bishops declared that the Labour party was not really socialist such that Catholics could not vote for it.

          Today few if any socialists advocate confiscation of all productive property. Many advocate ideas such as cooperatives which are totally compatible with Catholic social teaching. The crucial question is whether they are part of the historical tradition of anti-Catholic ideology. That’s why Pius XI said no Catholic could be a “true socialist” – true is the crucial word here.

    • Patti Sheffield

      The Church has long upheld the right of Christians to own private property. The infamous incident in the Book of Acts when Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God wasn’t because they didn’t give everything they owned to the Church, but because they didn’t and claimed they did—they lied to the Church, which was equated with lying to the Holy Spirit. St. Peter even said that the property was theirs to do with as they pleased and God was not offended if they wanted to keep some of it. The whole Church-as-commune thing is largely a myth cooked up by socialists to lend a pious patina to their tarnished economic system, which recent popes have described as soul-crushing and opposed to human dignity.

      • zebbart

        We cannot advocate pure socialism and we are not obligated to hold all things in common, but as Saint John Chrystostom says, we are obligated to hand our wealth over to the poor: “If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that to fail to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”

        • John Sposato

          Does it follow then that the government is the proper agent to determine who the beneficiaries of our wealth will be? That the government decides where the fruits of our labor go? To promote abortion? Transgenderism? Same-sex marriage? The death penalty? To give away money promiscuously so as to facilitate — even encourage — out-of-wedlock births and fatherless families without promoting a work ethic that will allow the poor to become self-sufficient rather than dependent on the government? When money is given away in this manner, consuming citizens grow and begin to outstrip the ability of producing citizens to pay for their benefits, and the system falls apart. This is socialism, and it isn’t working. Hasn’t worked. Won’t work.

          • zebbart

            There is no other option than to have the government determine who the beneficiaries of our wealth will be. The “free market” is a governmental system too. The only questions are how democratic the process of distribution should be and whether it should serve the common good or special interests. Equitable distribution of the goods society produces is a requirement of Christian justice, and it does happen to work well. The developed countries in the world that provide healthcare, education, income for those who cannot work, and high wages/benefits for those who can are doing better than America in almost every way.

  • Thomas Storck

    Why must anyone, especially a Catholic, feel the need to position himself on the left/right spectrum? Abortion is wrong, yes, and should be illegal. No debate on that from me. But does it therefore follow that cutting taxes on the rich, deregulating the economy, waging aggressive war, is ok? Can’t a person attempt to follow the Church’s teaching in all areas without the need to identify with a political paradigm that comes from John Locke’s limited understanding of the purposes of government and his deeply flawed notion of the roots of society? I find this article deeply depressing as suggesting that if the left is bad, then let’s all go to the right. Can’t we begin to think outside the box just a little bit?

    • Patti Sheffield

      Yes, think outside the box. You may start with dropping your caricature of the Right and stop presenting what can only be a list of leftist talking points about the rich, the economy, and war. Hillary Clinton voted to send our troops to war when she was a senator, so let’s stop pretending that the Left is always and everywhere peaceful and decent. As it is, the writer didn’t say everyone must move from left to right. He explained his own journey, and what led him there. It wasn’t just abortion. He also cited anti-Catholic bigotry, in which his beliefs are under attack actively by the Left. Just look at the Little Sisters of the Poor and how several blue states are trying to force the contraceptive mandate on them. Does the Left really think that beating up on an order of nuns that cares for poor elderly people makes them the good side?

      • Thomas Storck

        Who said anything about supporting Hillary Clinton? I certainly did not vote for her, and, yes, based on what she said during the campaign, she was as pro-war as ever George Bush was.

        Since you immediately begin citing egregious instances of persecution by the Left (all of which I deplore too), this makes me think that you think we essentially have only two choices, Left or Right. I deny that. If you’re familiar with the papal social encyclicals, you know that the type of economy recommended in them hardly comports well with that championed by American conservatism. Nor with American liberalism especially either. I’m not recommending the Left, I’m lamenting the fact that the author, after rejecting the errors of the left, moved to the right, instead of trying to find an authentic Catholic position.

        But I hardly think my description of the Right, namely, ” cutting taxes on the rich, deregulating the economy, waging aggressive war” is a caricature. Unfortunately, it’s all too true. But again, it does not follow that because I reject the Republicans or the Right, that I favor the Democrats or the Left.

  • Good for you. There’s no way to support the left, not until they move off the sex and abortion issues. They are a nonstarter.

    By the way I remember Nat Hentoff. What a decent human being he was. May God Rest his soul.