Pro-choice bigots: a view from the pro-life left.by Hentoff, Nat
ASAP, November 30, 1992
Not too long ago, he was a pro-lifer. He wrote and spoke about the right to life and attacked advocates of abortion rights. "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of a higher order than the right to life," he would say. "That was the premise to slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation, because that was private and therefore outside of your right to be concerned." He told the story of how he himself had almost been aborted. A physician had advised his mother to let him go, but she wouldn't. Don't let the pro-choicers convince you that a fetus isn't a human being, he warned: "That's how the whites dehumanized us, by calling us niggers. The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify that which they wanted to do--and not even feel like they'd done anything wrong."
But as Jesse Jackson decided to run for president in 1984, his fiery pro-life rhetoric suddenly subsided. If being black was a political obstacle, being black and pro-life would raise the odds much too high. Jackson understood that it is hard to be a pro-lifer if you want the support of the left--or just have friends on the left. The lockstep liberal orthodoxy on abortion is pro-choice, as Bill Clinton's election showed and his presidency will reinforce. Dissenters are not tolerated.
Nearly ten years ago I declared myself a pro-lifer. A Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer. Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me. Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled. The women on the lecture committee, I was told by the embarrassed professor who had asked me to come, had decided that there was a limit to the kind of speech the students could safely hear, and I was outside that limit. I was told, however, that I could come the next year to give a different talk. Even the women would very much like me to speak about one of my specialties, censorship in America. I went and was delighted to talk about censorship at Nazareth.
At the Voice, some of my colleagues in the editorial department wondered, I was told, when I had converted to Catholicism--the only explanation they could think of for my apostasy. (Once I received a note from someone deep in the ranks of the classified department. She too was pro-life, but would I please keep her secret? Life would be unbearable if anyone knew.)
To others, I was a novelty. Interviews were arranged on National Public Radio and various television programs, and I spoke at one of Fred Friendly's constitutional confrontations on PBS. Afterward, men, women, and teenagers wrote from all over the country that they had thought themselves to be solitary pro-lifers in the office, at school, even at home. They were surprised to find that there was someone else who was against capital punishment, against Reagan and Bush, and dismayed at the annual killing of 1.6 million developing human beings. They felt, they told me, that it was absurd to talk blithely of disposing of potential life. These were lives--lives with potential to someday do New York Times crossword puzzles and dig Charlie Parker. That is, if they weren't thrown out with the garbage.
I felt less alone myself. In time, I found other heretics. For instance, the bold, witty, crisply intelligent members of Feminists for Life of America. There are some in every state, and chapters in thirty-five. Many of them came out of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and now they also focus on blocking attempts to enact death penalty laws. They have succeeded in Minnesota. You won't see much about Feminists for Life in the press. When reporters look for pro-lifers to interview, they tend to go after pinched elderly men who look like Jesse Helms and women who wear crucifixes.
On the other hand, not all stereotypes are without actual models. As an exotic pro-lifer, I was invited to address an annual Right to Life convention in Columbus, Ohio. The event was held in a large field. A rickety platform faced the predominately Christian crowd.
I told them that as pro-lifers, they ought to oppose capital punishment and the life-diminishing poverty associated with the policies of their Republican president. Ronald Reagan, I emphasized, had just cut the budget for the WIC program (federally funded Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children). He and those who support him, I said, give credence to Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank's line: "Those who oppose abortion are pro-life only up to "the moment of birth."
From the back of the crowd, and then moving forward, there were growls, shouts, and table-thumping. Suddenly, a number of people began rushing toward the platform. I said to the man sitting next to me, a leader of the flock, that I had not quite decided that this cause worth dying for.
As it happened, the souls on fire only wanted to say that I was in grievous error about these Christian presidents because I had not yet found God. Indeed, I often get letters from religious pro-lifers telling me that it is impossible for me to be simultaneously an atheist and a pro-lifer. Some of the pro-abortion-rights leaders whom I have debated are certain of the same correlation. No serious atheist, no Jewish atheist, no left-wing atheist could want to--as my fiercely pro-choice wife puts it--enslave women.
Yet being without theology isn't the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual--Williams Obstetrics, for example--points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born "should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman." Nor, biologically, does it make any sense to draw life-or-death lines at viability. Once implantation takes place, this being has all the genetic information within that makes each human being unique. And he or she embodies continually developing human life from that point on. It missses a crucial point to say that the extermination can take place because the brain has not yet functioned or because that thing is not yet a "person." Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.
Yet rational arguments like these are met with undiluted hostility by otherwise clear-thinking liberals. Mary Meehan, a veteran of the anti-war movement, tried to pierce this pall of left orthodoxy in a 1980 article in The Progressive:
Some of us who went through the anti-war struggles of the 1960s and 1970s are now active in the right-to-life movement. We do not enjoy opposing our old friends on the abortion issue, but we feel that we have no choice. We are moved by what pro-life feminists call the "consistency thing"--the belief that respect for human life demands opposition to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and war... It is out of character for the left to neglect the weak and helpless. The traditional mark of the left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor... The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient.
Meehan's article provoked an extraordinary amount of mail. A few writers praised The Progressive for having enough respect for its readers to expose them to a perspective opposite to the magazine's. But the great percentage of letter writers were furious, indignant that a "left" magazine should print such vicious right-wing propaganda.
Because defending the killing of the fetus is inconsistent with the liberal/left worldview in other matters, the abortion rights orthodoxy has relied on extraordinary hypothetical arguments to justify its position in the twenty years since the Roe decision. Take two examples. In 1971, when abortion was legalized in New York state, an editorial on WCBS radio in New York attempted to define abortion as an act of compassion: "It is one sensible method of dealing with such problems as overpopulation, illegitimacy, and possible birth defects," the announcer said. "It is one way of fighting the rising welfare rolls and the increasing number of child abuse cases."
In 1992 the defense has changed. No longer a means of compassion, abortion is now viewed as a form of preemptive law enforcement. As Nicholas von Hoffman writes in the New York Observer:
"Free, cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don't want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster... "At their demonstrations, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted--murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims--pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets."
As a sometime admirer of von Hoffman, I take this to be--maybe--his assuming the role of Jonathan Swift in these hard times, but it doesn't matter particularly whether he's serious or not. Those who see abortion as cost-effective, even humane, way to thin the ranks of the lower orders are not few in number.
Pro-choicers clearly are only interested in their version of the choice in this matter. But why are the liberals among them so immovably illiberal only when it comes to abortion? The male pro-choicers, by and large, consider this to be entirely an issue for women to decide. And the only women they know are pro-choice. If a man has any doubts or subversive ambivalences, he keeps them to himself because should he speak of them, he will be banished from the company of all the progressive women he knows--and any whom he might hope to know. Pro-choice women are so unyielding because they profoundly believe that without the power to abort at will, they will be enslaved. Once an abortion is wanted, the fetus, as one woman told me, is--to some women--"the "enemy within." In the fight not to be enslaved, liberalism is an abstraction.
Accordingly, I am no longer surprised to find myself considered an external enemy. For years, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates around the country invited me to speak at their fund-raising Bill of Rights dinners. But once I declared myself a pro-lifer, all such invitations stopped. They know I agree with them on most ACLU policies, but that no longer matters. I am now no better than Jesse Helms. Free speech, after all, has its limits.
This disdain on the left for anything or anyone pro-life has clearly taken a toll on the political process. Liberal/left politicians who remain true to their philosophy and oppose abortion are virtually impossible to find. Like Jackson, most simply cave in to abortion rights pressure, fearing that no matter how left-leaning they are on other issues, if they come out against abortion they will be branded as right-wing fanatics. Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, a liberal pro-life Democrat, was forbidden from speaking at this year's Democratic convention. And when The Village, Voice later offered him a forum in New York to talk and answer questions about whether it is possible to be both liberal and pro-life, he (and I, the putative moderator) was shouted down by pro-choicers. Meanwhile, the president-elect, who has been on both sides of the abortion question during his career, has already pledged to satisfy his pro-choice backers by requiring that any nominee to the Supreme Court be an explicit and public supporter of abortion rights.
I saw Jesse Jackson recently on a train, and we talked for quite a while about George Bush's awful nomination of Ed Carnes to the federal bench. An assistant attorney general in Alabama, Carnes built his reputation on sending people to "Yellow Mama," the state's electric chair. He would replace Frank Johnson, whom Martin Luther King once described as "the man who gave true meaning to the word justice." (A few weeks later Jackson joined the campaign to defeat the nomination. To no avail. Carnes was eventually confirmed.) I then asked Jackson about another form of execution. I told him that in speeches I often quote what he wrote as a pro-lifer. He looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he still believed what he said then. "I'll get back to you on that," he said. He hasn't yet.
Copyright 1992 Information Access Company, a Thomson Corporation Company