Nat Hentoff


Pro-lifers mourned the death of Nat Hentoff, 91, who passed away Jan. 7—a rare combination of Jewish atheist, political liberal and pro-lifer.

“It’s not surprising an atheist would be against abortion, because all he knows is life,” said Maria McFadden Maffucci, president of the Human Life Foundation and editor of its journal, the Human Life Review.

Ms. Maffucci said her father, the New York City-based organization’s founding president and journal editor, got in touch with Hentoff more than 30 years after the longtime jazz scribe had written columns in the Village Voice about the “Baby Doe” cases in which two infants were denied life-saving treatment because of their physical disabilities. “I think that woke him up,” Ms. Maffucci said of Hentoff.

He also became one of the first recipients of the foundation’s “Great Defender of Life” award in 2005.

“As an atheist, Nat took much heat from his fellow liberals and rigid fundamentalists among the ‘free thinking’ crowd for standing against abortion,” said a Jan. 7 blog posting by Wesley J. Smith for the National Review.

“Nat Hentoff was an indefatigable writer, a man whose deeply ingrained integrity compelled him to willingly lose good friends and professional opportunities if that is what it took to remain steadfast on behalf of causes he thought to be right,” Smith said. “We will not see his like again.”

Hentoff also wrote a weekly syndicated column, “Sweet Land of Liberty,” on First Amendment issues. In 1988, he wrote a biography of the then-archbishop of New York, “John Cardinal O’Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church.”

Other recognition given to Hentoff for his pro-life activities were the Bob Considine Award, by St. Bonaventure University, for having “exhibited the exemplary moral and ethical performance,” and the Pro Vita Award given by the Diocese of Brooklyn.

On a 1992 PBS public affairs program, “Life and Choice After Roe vs. Wade,” one panelist expressed surprise that a “liberal” would be against abortion. “I believe in what used to be called the seamless garment,” Hentoff replied. “It can also be called a consistent ethic of life. I am against capital punishment…I am pro-life all the way.”

That same year, Hentoff tried to quiet hecklers at Cooper Union, a college in Manhattan, who had prevented then-Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey from giving a speech, “Can a Liberal Be Pro-Life?”

He appealed to respect for liberal traditions of free speech, comparing hecklers to Stalinists and fascists and by arguing pragmatically that they would have a better chance of influencing Casey by entering into debate with him. His efforts went for naught.

In 2002, Hentoff was one of many to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Pro-Life Action League’s Joseph Scheidler, who had been sued for damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, for organizing protests outside abortion clinics, arguing Scheidler had a First Amendment right to free speech. —CNS 

Nat Hentoff