Great Defender of Life Dinner: The Human Life Foundation Honors Nat Hentoff
Also featuring remarks by Wesley Smith and William Murchison
October 27, 2005
My late husband, James Patrick McFadden, creator of the Human Life Foundation and Founding Editor of the Human Life Review would be—is, I believe—very pleased that we are carrying on, and especially pleased that this year’s awardee is a journalist Jim greatly admired: Nat Hentoff. You’ll hear from him soon.
And now, keeping an eye on the time, please permit me this brief rhyme:
Among our many distinguished guests tonight,
there’s one we would especially like to mention.
We hope he won’t mind the attention.
Once again we have with us
a brilliant professor emeritus
of political science at Fordham U.
Author of books and articles too.
He’s Father Francis Canavan, SJ,
whose eighty-eighth birthday is today!
And now I’d like to give the mike to my daughter
whose Dad would surely laud her:
Maria James McFadden Maffucci,
wife of Bob and Mom of three,
Editor of The Human Life Review.
So here’s Maria now for you.
Thank you Mom. My mother, Faith, is Senior Editor of the Review, of course, as well as the author of the book Acts of Faith and the pun-laden Eyeview section of the newsletter Catholic Eye.
I, too, would like to welcome you all.
As we begin the evening, I would like to thank, first and foremost, the supporters of the Foundation. We have some of our most loyal and generous supporters here tonight. As I say often in my fund-raising letters—and it really is no exaggeration—we would not be here without you. We would not be able to publish the Human Life Review or offer matching grants to crisis pregnancy centers without those of you who make sacrifices for us. And there are no words adequate to thank you, though I do try.
Tonight I would also like to thank those of you who have made this evening possible, especially the generous benefactors and table sponsors listed in our program.
We are here tonight to honor Nat Hentoff, a man who has insisted on life. He has been, throughout his career, consistent in defending life at all stages; and he has been a champion in defense of the rights of the disabled. He writes the truth as he sees it. He does not tailor his message to his audience, or flinch in the face of sometimes hostile opposition.
My late father founded the Human Life Review because, he said, “good writing can win battles; great writing, whole wars.” Nat Hentoff’s powerful words have been a great part of our arsenal. We are so proud to honor him.
We have some special new friends here tonight. Democrats for Life are here in force, and they have brought with them New York State Senator Reverend Reuben Diaz, who is on their Advisory Board. Welcome, Senator. Senator Diaz has spoken out eloquently against abortion and against embryonic stem cell research. He recently took scores of New York City Hispanic clergymen to Washington, D.C. to rally in support of the nomination of John Roberts for Chief Justice.
Many of you will remember that Mary Meehan, who is also here tonight, wrote a wonderful two-part series for us on Democrats for Life in 2003.
As we prepare to ask God to bless our meal, I also want to ask for your prayers. Our Senior Editor, John Muggeridge, who was expected to be with us this evening is ill, and must stay in Toronto; and he asks for our prayers. And very sadly, we have lost two friends, two fellow Great Defenders of Life, who were here together in this room last year: Mr. Dick Reeder, who was dedicated to the pro-life cause, and most recently worked with Christopher Bell and Good Counsel Homes, passed away suddenly last July. His wife, Sheila, and two of their children, are here tonight.
And just two days ago, we lost another great man, Wellington Mara, whose dedication and generosity in the cause of life was boundless. We remember them and pray for their families. And now I would like to ask Father George Rutler, Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour here in Manhattan, and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, to say the blessing.
FATHER GEORGE RUTLER:
I stand before you in two capacities: Pastor of the Church across the street, and also member of the Hanging Committee of this club. Not as dire as it sounds. We’re in charge of the pictures.
My first encounter with Mr. Hentoff was indirect. I think it was about 1992 when I read his column, “The Perennial Face of Fascism,” about how people who spoke most glibly about freedom of speech are the most censorious themselves. Around the same time I met an elderly woman who walked with me in a pro-life march. We were going down Madison Avenue. Cardinal O’Connor was with her and various other people. And as we were saying the Rosary—and she was Jewish—people began blowing whistles and banging drums, trying to drown us out.
And she said to me, “Father, I’ve heard that sound before. I grew up in Munich and in the 1930’s, whenever we tried to speak against the government, the young boys would blow whistles and bang drums. They had nothing to say; they could only make noise. Well, nothing has changed.”
So we’re very happy now to be able to honor this evening a champion of reasonable discourse and natural law. We gather to do so, Christians and Jews together. My first theological crisis in my life was at the age of ten and involved Judaism. My father decided I should learn Hebrew. We were Episcopalian at the time. I was only ten and I spoke very few languages then. I was sent to go to Synagogue on Friday nights with the Jewish undertaker in town. He told me that Jesus was Jewish. I remember asking my father, if Jesus was Jewish, why were we Episcopalians. And shortly after I became even more confused when I learned that our Lord’s Mother was Roman Catholic. All of us may invoke the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” And that’s not an opinion; that’s a Prophecy of God.
And Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her infant and be without tenderness for the child in her womb; even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name.” Barku et Adonai, ham’vorakh. Baruch Adonai ham’vorakh L’Olam va’ed. Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu melech haolam, asher bakarbanu mikol hamin, v’natanlanu et torahto. Baruch attah Adonai, notain hatorahh. That’s Anglo Saxon Hebrew. Blessed be the Lord, Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has given us his truthful scriptures. Blessed art Thou, Giver of the scriptures.
Of course, the Prophet is speaking of Holy Israel, Our Lord’s child. But we are all Our Lord’s children. And so I would pray a prayer, actually written by Archbishop John Carroll, first Catholic Bishop of this country. His cousin was the Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He prayed this in 1791. It could have been written today.
And as we pray we also remember our benefactors, James McFadden, Founder of the Foundation, all those we’ve invoked this evening. This afternoon I was with Anne Mara. And one had to wait almost an hour to pay respects at the body of Wellington Mara. His life saw many achievements, the most generous of which is that he was the father of eleven children, grandfather of forty; and he was to them a great man.
And also today in Rome, Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, a friend of many here, had an audience with the Pope Benedict XVI.
And they are together now, today, in Rome with Rabbis from around the world, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council on the Church and Judaism. So I think we can all bask in that kind of blessing extended by the Holy Father.
Archbishop Carroll prayed: “We pray Thee oh Almighty God and Eternal God to endow with heavenly knowledge those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation. We pray Thee, oh God of might and wisdom and justice, through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted and judgment decreed.
Assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to thy people over whom he presides. By encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy, and by restraining vice and immorality.
That the light of Thy Divine Wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government.
We pray for all judges, magistrates and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled by Thy powerful protection to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.
And we commend, likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law. That they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give. And after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
And finally, we pray Thee, oh Lord of Mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed, who are gone before us with the sign of faith; and repose in the sleep of peace the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends. For their claim is great on our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, oh Lord, we pray that you will give them a place of refreshment, light and everlasting peace through our Lord and Savior, Amen.”
RABBI JOSEPH POTASNIK:
Reverend Rutler, since you spoke of your love for Judaism, I’m more than willing to make you an honorary member of the Jewish people. There is one procedure which I would discuss with you in the kitchen, tonight. Secondly, I want to thank all of you here, seriously—especially Mary Ward, whom I have come to know and love over the years—for making special arrangements for us to have kosher food. I’ve never had Kosher food under the strict supervision of Father Jim Lochran.
In the famous play The Andersonville Trial, one of the commanding officers was charged with violating the lives of innocent people. When asked why, he simply said: “I was following orders.” Whereupon the prosecuting attorney said to him, “you could have said no.” Tonight, we recognize someone who clearly and courageously comes forward and says no; says no because of principle, rather than saying yes, because of popularity.
In Latin we would refer to Nat Hentoff as primus inter pares, first among equals. In Yiddish we would say of him, “a mensch is a mensch.” A decent person is a decent person, regardless of position or persuasion. We thank you, Mr. Hentoff, and we ask: May all of your wishes be fulfilled, the wishes of your heart—l’chaim for life, l’tovim for good, ool’shalom for peace. Amen.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take a moment to introduce our staff. Along with my mother and myself, we are: Rose Flynn DeMaio, who is our business manager. A business manager at a non-profit institution is a very stressful job indeed. Yet Rose not only manages amazingly well, but she has an abundance of energy, patience and good cheer. Christina McFadden, my sister, who, with her affinity for computers and top-notch organizational skills, has really revved up our efficiency, and keeps us laughing besides. Our dedicated volunteer par excellence, Patricia O’Brien. And I would now like to introduce to you Anne Conlon, the Review’s managing editor as well as the sharp mind and wit behind catholic eye’s “In the News.” Anne?
Thank you, Maria, for those kind words. One of Jim McFadden’s great virtues as an editor was his respect for the unique voice of each author he published. Whether by nature or nurture, happily it is a virtue Maria shares with her father. Under her guidance the Review has continued to offer readers not only a variety of arguments in defense of life—philosophical, legal, scientific, religious—but also a variety of voices to articulate them—literary, meditative, scholarly, journalistic.
Over the past thirteen years William Murchison’s voice has formed a unique and invaluable part of the Review’s ongoing record of the abortion debate. A long-time columnist for the Dallas Morning News, Bill reports from the vital intersection of politics and culture. He has written nearly forty articles for us, beginning with Choice Is for Voters, which appeared in our Spring, 1992 issue, just as that year’s Presidential contest was getting underway.
Here’s what Jim McFadden said in introducing Bill’s article: “A quarterly journal like ours rarely enjoys the luxury of running news. Events distort realities; ours is a long view. But Murchison’s reportage will remain perceptive even if, by the time you read it, some facts may already be outdated.”
Rereading that article yesterday, I was struck by my late boss’s prescience. “Good reporter Murchison,” Jim wrote, “fills you in on all the as-we-go-to-press stuff, the kind of thing historians will ponder; a snapshot of how it looked way back now.”
Three years ago, Mr. Murchison, who still writes a syndicated weekly column, moved on from the Dallas Morning News to become Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University where, no doubt, he is nourishing young voices we may one day wish to publish alongside his own. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our senior editor and very good friend, William (Bill) Murchison.
Thank you indeed, Anne. Thirteen years! I must be getting older than I think I am. I have to say in beginning what a distinct honor it is to be here as a guest of this illustrious enterprise, and particularly of the McFadden family and of those who have made this enterprise possible. My friend Faith, my friend Maria and blessed Jim McFadden who was an inspiration to me, even before there was a Human Life Review, through his presiding over various enterprises at National Review.
I’m distinctly honored to be here, and I do thank you for the invitation. I’m especially honored to be here tonight to salute my hero, Nat Hentoff. Why is Nat Hentoff my hero? For various reasons; not least having to do with his literary prowess, and the stunning variety of topics to which he addresses himself from jazz to human life. On all of these matters I listen to him with great attention, and allegiance.
But why is Nat Hentoff my hero? Nat Hentoff is my hero because he is an honest journalist. Now you might think that’s a contradiction in terms; an oxymoron. I want to show you that it can be done. And it is done about once or twice about every half a century.
One of my favorite instances of honesty in journalism occurred in the early part of the twentieth century—I want to assure you first of all that this is absolutely true: I have seen the hard copy for this—occurred in a small South Carolina newspaper in the year of grace 1929. And it concerned a wedding in that town. I will withhold the name of the couple it concerned in case anyone here is of South Carolina extraction.
But the story read this way: So and so, and so and so, were united in Holy Matrimony Saturday at First Presbyterian Church. The Reverend P.E. Riley officiating. The bride is a skinny little idiot who has kissed every boy in town, and paints her face like a Sioux Indian, while riding in her Dad’s car and drinking much moonshine. By the way, as Anna Russell would say, I’m not making this up.
The groom is a lazy young bum who hasn’t done a lick of work since he got out of college, and has come back here to sponge on his Dad and live at home. The couple will continue to sponge off the old man until he dies, and then she will take in washing.
And then a few more paragraphs of like import, until the conclusion: This may be the last issue of the Tribune. But it has been my ambition all my life to write up one wedding and tell the unvarnished truth. Now that it is done, death can have no sting.
Well there are varieties of truth, needless to say. There are higher varieties and lower varieties; and the practitioner of the kind of variety in which we are—whose honor we gather tonight—is a practitioner of the highest standards of the profession. As is the journal which is proud—the Human Life Review—to print his contributions.
Human Life Review tonight salutes an honest journalist and his identification with the Human Life Review. Honest journalism: I want to say a word about that, because that is what Human Life Review is all about. It’s the mission, it’s the passion, it’s the DNA of Human Life Review. You’re here to pay tribute to Nat Hentoff, but you have to understand that Nat Hentoff hangs around the Human Life Review for a very specific reason, which is Human Life’s commitment. Its strong, its firm, its abiding, its enduring commitment to the truth, and to honesty.
Let me raise the stakes for just a moment. Honesty, yes. But honesty to what? Honesty concerning what ideal? Honesty about the greatest moral and intellectual fraud ever foisted on the good people of the United States of America, to wit: that human life is just an optional commodity, that it has no integrity of its own, that it is not entitled to special protections on account of its transcendent importance in the created order. These are the intellectual fictions that have been perpetrated in our time, in front of us, in our hearing, in the hearing of our children who will imbibe these things as they drink water, or stronger vintages. And which they will appropriate unto themselves, unless, unless, unless, unless: lonely voices of truth ring out in the intellectual darkness of this time.
I want to tell you what that extraordinary virtue of honesty, as practiced in terms of the Human Life Review and its mission go in conjunction with; and that is that rarest of virtues which is courage. Courage. Because the telling of the truth can land you in big trouble. It can land you in the arena, or it can land you in venues that to the people who occupy them are of even more extraordinary importance, such as the faculty room where people refuse to shake your hand, or to greet you, on account of the extraordinary things that you say in terms of the truths by which we live.
Oh yes, courage can land you in all kinds of trouble. And yet, where would we be without it? Where would we be without courageous publications like the Human Life Review, with which I am so proud to be associated for thirteen years?
From Dallas to New York is a journey of about three hours and some fifteen or sixteen hundred miles. It’s a long way to go for dinner. But dinner’s not what I was after here on this particular occasion; rather the opposite. Rather the opportunity to mingle with the honest and the brave; with the cast of characters at Human Life Review; with Maria McFadden, with Faith, with Nat Hentoff whom I’m shaking hands with tonight for the first time. But we have met so many times via the printed page.
You see why I came from Dallas? Was it worth it? It was worth it to me. [APPLAUSE]
We in Dallas are a funny lot. We like football; we like the wide-open spaces. We even like money more than many people are alleged to like money. But I do think that we have the capacity, the ability to salute courage and honesty where we see them. And this place is where I see them tonight, and to them I pass my salute. Thank you very much.
Thank you. I would like to point out, before we move on, that we have several of our Human Life Review authors here tonight: William Murchison, of course. Thank you for your wonderful speech. Also in our audience, Professor George McKenna, Mary Meehan, Sandi Merle, Ross Blackburn, Pat Mullaney and, of course, Nat Hentoff and Wesley Smith. I would like also to thank Sandi Merle and to point out that this is the first year that the New York Board of Rabbis has come to this event. And I would like to say how much we appreciate that, and thank you Rabbi Potasnik.
Wesley Smith is a frequent contributor to the Human Life Review, a tireless advocate for life. He is attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and a consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
He was an electrifying speaker at our dinner last year. When we asked Mr. Hentoff who he would like to be introduced by, he immediately said, Wesley Smith. And so we were very excited to ask Wesley back.
So now I introduce to you Wesley Smith.
Thank you all and good evening. What a great honor and a great thrill it is to be back again, especially to be able to introduce Nat Hentoff who is not only a great man, but I’m really thrilled and honored to say is my friend. You know as I look around—I started working on some of these issues back in 1993, it soon became very clear to me that if you want to see what’s going wrong in this country, all you have to do is look at the professional journals. And I brought a couple of examples tonight to share with you, to show you the problems, and to also allow Nat Hentoff to show how his advocacy is the solution.
This is from the New England Journal of Medicine, February 24, 2000. To set up the reason why this article was written, as most of you, if not all of you know, euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands. And some studies came out that show that rather than being the “gentle landing” as it is often depicted, that there were serious consequences and “side effects”—I mean beyond death—to euthanasia.
People would go into convulsions, nausea, and not, perhaps, die, but instead go into extended comas. Sherwin Nuland, who is one of our most famous public intellectuals in the medical arena, a bioethicist and a doctor who wrote How We Die, which was a New York Times best seller, then decided to write an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in response to this idea of the side effects of euthanasia, again, other than death. And his answer was, astonishingly, that we need to train doctors better how to kill people more effectively. And what he wrote was this, and this I have pulled out because I think it’s quite important: “Many opponents of these practices [euthanasia] point to the Hippocratic Oath and its prohibition on hastening death as reasons to oppose euthanasia. But those that turn to the Oath in an effort to shape or legitimize their ethical viewpoints, must realize that the statement has been embraced over approximately the past two hundred years far more as a symbol of professional cohesion than for its content. Its pithy sentences cannot be used as all-encompassing maxims to avoid the personal responsibility inherent in the practice of medicine. Ultimately, a physician’s conduct at the bedside is a matter of individual conscience.”
Well, think about this. If a physician’s ethical responsibility at the bedside is merely a matter of individual conscience, then the practice of medicine is no longer a profession. Because the point of being a professional is that you have obligations above and beyond what you may think are important in terms of your own personal belief system.
If you are a professional, a physician, your first duty is not to your own conscience, it is to your patient. And you are to do no harm under Hippocratic medical values.
I saw some research that said that today only thirteen percent of all physicians take the Hippocratic Oath. And it tells you what is wrong with medicine, because the Hippocratic Oath is not primarily for the physician, it is for the protection of patient.
Now let me turn to something that was published in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, as most of you know, is a bioethics journal, one of the most important bioethics journals in the world. It is housed at the Georgetown University campus. And this is written by John Harris, Ph.D., the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics and Research; Director, Center for Social Ethics and Policy and a Director of the Institute of Medicine Law and Bioethics, University of Manchester, England. If an article is in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, it is considered respectable in establishment bioethics; I mean this is not Joe’s Bioethics Journal on the Internet. Harris wrote about a bioethics belief that is sometimes called personhood theory. Under personhood theory, being a human is not what gives moral value, it is being a “person,” which individuals earn by possessing certain cognitive capacities.
And here’s what he wrote: “Many, if not most, of the problems of health care ethics presuppose that we have a view about what sorts of beings have something that we might think of as ultimate moral value.”
Yeah, human beings. But if you said that, then a lot of Ph.D.’s couldn’t earn a living. Or if this sounds too apocalyptic, then we need to identify those sorts of individuals who have the highest moral value or importance. Think about what Dr. Harris is saying.
If he were saying we have to identify the race that has the highest moral value or importance, we would say sir, you are a bigot. And we would be right. But this is the same kind of invidious discrimination; just different victims.
Realize that in the bioethics mainstream view—not all bioethicists, but mainstream, utilitarian bioethics—to assert that human life has intrinsic value simply and merely because it is human, is deemed speciesist, that is, discrimination against animals. And this is something that the bioethics movement shares with the animal liberation movement, which also is attacking the concept of human exceptionalism, which I believe may become the great moral crisis of the twenty-first century.
Back to Harris: “Personhood provides a species-neutral way of grouping creatures that have lives that it would be wrong to end by killing or by letting die. These may include animals, machines, extraterrestrials, gods, angels and devils.” You see, the issue is to have a consistent standard of measure for everything. Thus, if it’s a redwood tree, does it have sufficient consciousness? No, it’s not a person. How about a dog? Does it have sufficient measure of consciousness? Yes, some might say. So it’s a person. If it’s Terri Schiavo, does she have sufficient cognitive capacity? No, so she’s not a person. In bioethics mainstream thinking, in personhood theory, there is such a thing as the human non-person. All unborn human lives are denigrated as non-persons. Newborn infants are also non-persons because a newborn infant may not be self-aware over time, or may not be able to value his or her life. People like Terri Schiavo: non-persons. People like Ronald Reagan when he had Alzheimer’s: non-persons. People like my Uncle Bruno Micheletti, who is dying of Alzheimer’s disease and whose cognitive capacity has utterly collapsed, would be denigrated as non-persons.
Well, let me tell you, they are not going to take my Uncle Bruno and turn him into a thing or an object! [APPLAUSE] Dr. Harris proceeds to say, “Persons who want to live are wronged by being killed because they are thereby deprived of something they value. Persons who want to live are not, on this account, harmed by having the wish to die granted through voluntary euthanasia for example. Non-persons, or potential persons, cannot be wronged in this way because death does not deprive them of anything they can value. If they cannot wish to live, they cannot have that wish frustrated by being killed.”
So let us be blunt. Personhood theory tells us who we can kill and get a good night’s sleep. But it gets worse. Tom Beauchamp, also in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, December, 1999—and he’s important because he is the co-author of the bioethics textbook called The Principles of Biomedical Ethics, which is taught in all university bioethics courses, as far as I know—wrote this: “Because many humans lack properties of personhood or are less than full persons, they are thereby rendered equal or inferior in moral standing to some non-humans. If this conclusion is defensible we will need to rethink our traditional view that these unlucky humans cannot be treated in the ways we treat relevantly similar non-humans.”
Pay close attention to this sentence: “For example, they might be aggressively used as human research subjects or sources of organs.”
So now we see where this leads when we say that human life doesn’t have intrinsic value simply because it’s human: We start to think of some humans not only as killable, but as harvestable crops, as natural resources, as things to be used. And bioethics is leading this charge. And this leads us to some very terrible places.
It leads us to partial-birth abortion. It leads us to assisted suicide and euthanasia. It leads us to dehydrating people like Terri Schiavo to death, merely because she had a severe cognitive incapacity. It leads to the idea of harvesting the organs of people like Terri Schiavo.
This is from Critical Care Medicine (2003, Vol. 31, No. 9), written by two Harvard doctors: “We propose that individuals who desire to donate their organs, and/or are either neurologically devastated or imminently dying, should be allowed to donate their organs without first being declared dead.” This is establishment medicine with a capital E. Critical Care Medicine is the journal for the doctors that do intensive care.
It leads to “futile-care theory,” where bioethicists presume to give physicians the right to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on their perception of the quality of the patient’s life; a subjective value judgment that has nothing to do with medicine. It leads to a duty to die.
And it’s interesting; every time I have decided to write about these issues, the duty to die, dehydration, assisted suicide, I’ve noticed something.
You remember the old World War Two graffiti, “Kilroy was here”? So I start to write about assisted suicide. Nat Hentoff was here. I write about the dehydration of people with cognitive disabilities; Nat Hentoff was here. I write about illegal or not illegal, unfortunately, but unethical and immoral medical experimentation: Nat Hentoff was here. Futile care theory; Nat Hentoff was here. Duty to die; Nat Hentoff was here. Partial-birth abortion; Nat Hentoff was here! [APPLAUSE]
Nat Hentoff is always here when we need him. And we’re so grateful, Nat, for your great work over so many years and decades.
Nat Hentoff is a superb writer and first-class public intellectual. He is a man of consistent, steadfast principle; a moral purist in an age of hand-wringing accommodationists. This unyielding consistency has made him an iconoclast’s iconoclast.
Indeed, Hentoff has famously described himself as a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, leftwing, pro-lifer. [APPLAUSE] Chutzpah, Nat!
Talk about cutting against almost every societal grain, no wonder he both thrills and upsets so many people, including his beautiful wife, Margot. [APPLAUSE]
Hentoff’s style is as individualistic as are his principles. In an age of shouters, he is quiet; in an era of facile talking heads, he remains profound. Where others agitate and self aggrandize, he relies on steadfast, cogent argument to persuade.
Where contemporary pundits often tailor their views to cater to the powerful or popular, Hentoff passionately remains a challenger of orthodoxies.
Hentoff’s advocacy cuts a wide swath across what are often called the “life issues.” Indeed, his unyielding stand over many years against abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, unethical human medical experimentation, and the ongoing bioethical construction of a duty to die has made him a moral beacon for those who believe that universal human liberty depends on society’s embrace of the intrinsic equality of all human life.
And for decades he’s connected the dots for his vast audience; expertly charting the consequences of our steady, but not always slow, slide down the slippery slope toward a veritable culture of death. Reading Hentoff in full battle cry is not for those too squeamish to see the truth. His readers have often felt his righteous rage as he derided a Maryland law permitting abortion of disabled fetuses at any time during the woman’s pregnancy, as evidence that “Eugenics is becoming as American as ballpark hot dogs” . . . as he railed in a series of articles written in 1983 and 1984 against the court-permitted starvation death of Baby Doe, an infant with Down Syndrome who was denied routine surgery and basic sustenance. Pointing to where the logic of such heartless acts lead, he wrote: “If we are to have a brave new world of perfect babies, with parents having a second chance at aborting infants who are born defective, then do we really want the landscape cluttered with badly-handicapped adults who cost more than they produce, and who are aesthetically displeasing besides?”
Nat demonstrated how the drive among bioethicists to ration health care is, indeed, leading to a duty to die among the old: “This is naked utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number. And individuals who are in the way, in this case the elderly poor, have to be gotten out of the way. Not murdered, heaven forbid, just made comfortable until they die with all deliberate speed.”
Nat Hentoff decried unethical human experiments conducted in the early 1980’s on babies with spina bifida, in which doctors decided not to treat some infants in part based on the family’s economic circumstances; a cruel act that Hentoff rightly condemned as “death row for infants.”
Nat repeatedly castigated the American Civil Liberties Union, to which he was once a card-carrying member, as having succumbed to “zealous majoritarianism for repeatedly litigating in favor of ending the lives of the most vulnerable in society.” Hentoff, his pen dripping disdain as his ink, wrote the once-respectable civil libertarian organization had, with complicit judges, “engaged in a minuet of death.”
I could go on all night about the prophetic power of Hentoff’s advocacy, but why settle for me when the great man is here to speak for himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I am truly proud and honored to give you Nat Hentoff, a truly great Defender of Human Life.
Thank you. I have learned so much from Wesley Smith’s writings that it finally occurred to me that I owe him tuition payments, and will arrange the schedule later. [LAUGHTER]
When Maria first called me with this stunning designation, I soon thought of a truly great Defender of Life whom I was privileged to know, first as a reporter, and then as a friend: John Cardinal O’Connor. [APPLAUSE] Before he came to New York from Scranton, he received some of the most vicious newspaper editorials, particularly one in the New York Times which castigated him for having the appalling taste to use “holocaust” and “abortion” in the same sentence. And then, Gloria Steinem told New York Magazine that the two worst things that had happened in New York in recent years were AIDS and John O’Connor.
So when I first went to meet him to start doing the profile for the New Yorker, I thought I owed it to him as a member of the predatory press to tell him where I was coming from. And I told him what Wesley just said, I said I am a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, prolifer. He asked me to repeat that. And he took out a pen. I think he thought he had discovered a new sect.
Some time later, I was to introduce him at a pro-life rally in Toronto, and just before then I was moderating a panel, and I said something heretical. I forget what. And two very large members of the audience came and wrested the microphone from me, and denounced me. And the Cardinal was watching this bemusedly, and then after I introduced him he said, I want you people to know that I am glad that Nat is not a member of the Church. We have enough trouble as it is.
One last story: Dr. Bernard Nathanson was a wholesale abortionist. Then one day he suddenly looked at what he was doing and stopped. Some time after that he converted to Catholicism and Cardinal O’Connor officiated at that event. The next day he said to me, I hope we don’t lose you because you’re the only Jewish, atheist pro-lifer we have.
But I met another one here tonight. He’s a professor at Cardoza Law School. Maybe we are growing. Anyway, I am still here, making trouble. And I want to start . . . I came across this Associated Press story, on June 22nd: “Louisiana House bill 675, inspired by the Terri Schiavo case, was signed into law by Governor Kathleen Blanco, [a familiar name by now], on July 12th, 2005. The law prevents situations like Terri Schiavo’s where her husband, who lived with another woman with whom he had fathered two children, battled her parents in court for years to retain guardianship and the power to order Terri’s death by dehydration. The new Louisiana law prohibits one spouse from making life-sustaining medical decisions for the other spouse if he or she is cohabitive with another person in the manner of married persons, or who has been convicted of any crime of violence against the other spouse.”
A certain person named Wesley J. Smith called the law “the first of what I hope will be an outpouring of state laws to prevent future Terri Schiavo cases, but, if the American Medical Association has its way, that won’t happen.” On June 20th, the AMA adopted a policy to oppose state bills and laws that try to remedy the Schiavo situation, especially—especially if the measures presume that patients without clear statements of the contrary, would want life-sustaining treatment such as tube feeding and hydration.
To the AMA, presuming for life is untenable. Current AMA policy that it is ethical in certain cases to stop life-sustaining treatment if the doctor determines it is in the patient’s best interest, was reaffirmed. The quote from Johns Hopkins neurologist Michael Williams: “While the Schiavo circumstances were heart wrenching, and compelling, they’re so rare that they’re not a good basis to revive existing law.” There’s a man who has not read Wesley Smith.
One other thing . . . when Terri Schiavo was killed, not to euphemize, Pat Anderson, who had been her family’s lawyer, the Schindler’s lawyer for a long time, said, “euthanasia in America now has a name and a face.” On the other hand, shortly after the murder—I called it the longest public execution in American history—Michael Schiavo’s literary agent started sending proposals for a book by the husband to publishers.
The agent said: “I think this is the seminal case in the right to die with dignity story.” No. This is the seminal case for whether euthanasia for the seriously disabled becomes embedded in the American way of death.
My colleagues—so to speak—in the press did one of the worst jobs of reporting I have ever seen on the Terri Schiavo case. Just for one thing, hardly any newspaper, or hardly any television broadcast or radio broadcast mentioned that twenty-six major disability rights organizations had filed legal briefs in her case.
Now this nation, with the growing futility doctrine of which Wesley writes in hospitals—this life is not worth continuing, and we need the beds. This idea has been promulgated by many bioethicists whom I described years ago as the new priesthood of death. This is not a knock on priests.
We are still, in terms of our laws, at a stage that, following a trial in 2004 on the constitutionality of partial-birth abortion, Federal District Judge Richard Conway Casey of the Southern District here in New York said in an opinion: “The Court finds that the testimony at trial and before Congress establishes that D&X partial-birth abortion is a gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized medical procedure. And there is credible evidence that D&X abortions subject fetuses to severe pain.” Nevertheless, Judge Casey also ruled that the federal ban on partial-birth abortion is in conflict with a 2000 Supreme Court ruling, and therefore, he said “it is unconstitutional.”
That’s stare decisis gone wrong. There was another Supreme Court precedent: “Slavery may be repugnant but no black, slave or free, has any rights under the Constitution.”—the Dred Scott decision. But that precedent was overturned. As Justice John Marshall said, “this Constitution is a living document.”
In the New York Sun, which is the best daily in New York City, Paul Greenberg, writing on the future of human cloning, another area of expertise of Wesley, said: “What disturbs us today is how quickly we get used to yesterday’s repugnance. And that gives way to tomorrow’s endorsement in a society that already tolerates the destruction of fetuses in the second and third trimesters. They will hardly be horrified, then, by embryos being destroyed in the womb if this should turn out to be the cure of dreaded diseases.”
But, despite bioethicists, this is a living society, and dissent eventually prevents this society from following false prophets. Somehow Professor Peter Singer comes to mind.
I live in Greenwich Village as did e.e. cummings. I never met him, but I knew his poetry and he certainly understood the power of birth. “We can never be born enough; we are human beings for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery; the mystery of growing. It takes courage,” he wrote, “to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” That is, if the bioethicists and their colleagues in the culture of death allow you to grow up.
Almost finally, on April 15th, 1986, John Cardinal O’Connor spoke at the Harvard Law School Forum. He enjoyed not preaching to the choir from time to time. He said, “We are already seeing cruel signs of an abortion mentality; what it can mean for all society. Who is to determine which life is meaningful, which life is not? We must ask: how safe will the retarded be, the handicapped, the aged, the wheel-chaired, the incurably ill when the so-called quality of life becomes the determination of who is to live and who is to die.” He ended, “the prospects are frightening.”
However, as he always counseled, and acted, prospects are not immutable when you insist on the power of life.
And finally, and this is finally, there is a screening tonight in New York of a new HBO Cinemax documentary film. It’s called Thirty-Nine Pounds of Love. I read you a very brief description of it. “Thirty Nine Pounds of Love is the story of Ami Ankilewitz who weighs only thirty-nine pounds, and works as a Three-D animator in Israel despite having bodily motion limited to a single finger on his left hand. At birth, Ami was diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy which severely limits physical movement and growth. He was predicted to survive only to the age of six. Now, thirty years later, Ami returns to the United States to confront the doctor who predicted his early demise”—I sure would like to see that. Apparently it’s in the film—“Along the way he attempts to heal a broken heart, come to terms with a major incident from his past and fulfill a lifelong dream to ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle.”
He is in town tonight for a screening of the film. It’ll be on HBO, I guess, after he gets a theater screening in a couple of months.
I would like to invite Professor Peter Singer and Wesley Smith’s choice of bioethicists to see the film, and then to be interviewed by Wesley. Thank you.
PRESENTATION OF AWARD:
Mr. Hentoff is presented with a specially commissioned cartoon by Nick Downes in an engraved silver frame.
Thank you everybody. I would like to say one more thing: another person whom I thought of quite soon after hearing from Maria was J.P. McFadden. His spirit is also like Cardinal O’Connor’s—still very much with us. [APPLAUSE]
William W. Blackburn II and his son W. Ross Blackburn
Alicia Colon and Nat Hentoff
Herc Izquierdo, Dr. Jane Haher, Maria and Faith McFadden
Margot Hentoff, right, chats with guests of Capt. Michael F. Hayes
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was pleased to attend for second year
Mary Meehan chats with Sr. Augustine of the Franciscan Daughters of Mary
Faith McFadden and Ambassador Gerald Scott
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Potemra of National Review
Happy Birthday, Father Canavan!
all photographs by Michael Fusco