Nat Hentoff, great free speech defender and civil libertarian, died last week. I remember my grandmother reading and praising Hentoff’s incisive and provocative writing when I was growing up. I’m sharing an excerpt from Hentoff’s 1986 Chicago talk on The Indivisible Fight for Life:

I’ll begin by indicating how I became aware, very belatedly, of the “indivisibility of life.” I mention this fragment of autobiography only be cause I think it may be useful to those who are interested in bringing others like me – some people are not interested in making the ranks more heterogeneous, but others are, as I’ve been finding out – to a realization that the “slippery slope” is far more than a metaphor.

When I say “like me,” I suppose in some respects I’m regarded as a “liberal,” although I often stray from that category, and certainly a civil libertarian – though the ACLU and I are in profound disagreement on the matters of abortion, handicapped infants and euthanasia, because I think they have forsaken basic civil liberties in dealing with these issues. I’m considered a liberal except for that unaccountable heresy of recent years that has to do with pro-life matters.

It’s all the more unaccountable to a lot of people because I remain an atheist, a Jewish atheist. (That’s a special branch of the division.) I think the question I’m most often asked from both sides is, “How do you presume to have this kind of moral conception without a belief in God?” And the answer is, “It’s harder.” But it’s not impossible.

For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a “late abortion.” And surely, they felt, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.

But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.

And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying – this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island – at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”

That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, 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 I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.

And then in the New York Review of Books , I saw the respected, though not by me, Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said – and I’ve heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the pow erless and all that.

Singer: “The pro-life groups were right about one thing, the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make much of a moral differ ence. We cannot coherently hold it is alright to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however,” said Singer, “is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.” Which, of course, the majority of the Court had already done in Roe v. Wade.

The heart of pro-life philosophy can be approached through two questions:

  1. Do we believe that all life is created equal and deserving of equal protection of its inalienable rights?
  2. Do we believe that life exists prior to birth?