The pro-life essays of Nat Hentoff

On January 7, Nat Hentoff died. (Wesley Smith’s tribute does him justice.) He was a writer, a syndicated columnist, a lover of jazz, an atheist, a passionate civil libertarian, and a pro-lifer. I will always be in his debt, although I never met him. Reading his work while I was in my early twenties was subtly life-altering. His writing was one of many influences that made me think about things I’d rather not have thought about, eventually forcing me off the fence and into the pro-life movement.

If Hentoff’s name is unfamiliar to you, prepare to have your horizons broadened.

The Human Life Review, which published many of Hentoff’s pieces on the life issues, has done honor to him and service to readers by setting up a memorial web page. On it is a link, good through January 17, to a free download of a collection of Hentoff essays spanning twenty years.

Hentoff came around to a pro-life position only gradually, and not without pushback. From My Controversial Choice to Become Pro-life:

I didn’t see that an actual baby, a human being, was being killed by abortion for years because just about everyone I knew—my wife, members of the family, the reporters I worked with at the Village Voice and other places—were pro-choice. But then—covering cases of failed late-term abortions with a live baby bursting into the room to be hidden away until it died—I began to start examining abortion seriously.

I came across medical textbooks for doctors who cared for pregnant women, and one of them—The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment by Drs. Harrison, Golbus, and Filly—turned me all the way around: “The concept that the fetus is a patient, an individual (with a DNA distinct from everyone else’s), whose maladies are a proper subject for medical treatment . . . is alarmingly modern. . . . Only now are we beginning to consider the fetus seriously—medically, legally, and ethically.”

I also began to be moved by a nationally known pro-life black preacher who said: “There are those who argue that the [woman’s] right to privacy is of a higher order than the right of life. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence of slaves on the plantation because that was private [property] and therefore outside of your right to be concerned.” (His name was Jesse Jackson, but that was before he decided to run for president, and changed his position.)

So, in the 1980s, in my weekly column in the Village Voice, I openly and clearly declared myself to be pro-life. That was—and still is—the most controversial position I’ve taken.


Do yourself a favor and read an essay or two. (Betcha can’t stop at one.) You’ll go back for more. You won’t always agree with him, but you’ll recognize his courage and commitment. You’ll be challenged.

Be careful about sharing his work with young people. Very dangerous stuff there. Look what it did to me.


Author: Ellen Kolb

New Hampshire-based writer, activist, hiker.