no violence period: New Perspectives on Abortion

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Nat Hentoff on Abortion

Beyond the 'rehearsed response'

by Nat Hentoff
The Village Voice, January 30, 1996

I read my fellow columnist Adolph Reed Jr. with interest and sometimes find him illuminating. But when he writes with what W.H. Auden used to call a ''rehearsed response''--rather than independent research--he is disappointingly ordinary.

In a recent Voice column, Professor Reed--he is a tenured savant at Northwestern University--elegantly described me as having a ''fetus fetish.'' The professor went on to declare unequivocally that ''a fetus is not a human being, it's an organism growing inside the body, albeit an organism with the potential to become a human being.''

Since he or she (even fetuses have genders) has not yet been admitted into our protected circle, it's okay to kill him or her.

I am familiar with the argument, being confronted with this rationale for abortion when I speak on the subject at colleges--including Princeton, Brown, the Columbia University Law School, Harvard, and other campuses.

Invariably, I am invited to address these largely hostile audiences by a small, hardy group of prolifers who present me as an oddity for their side--somewhat like the two-headed boy in the carnival.

They have spread the word beforehand that I am an atheist civil libertarian who writes for that prochoice bastion, The Village Voice. They add that my writings make clear that my views have far more in common with the teachings of justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall than with those of the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, whom I consider an enemy of the Bill of Rights.

So what the hell am I doing with a fetus fetish--particularly since Margot, my wife of many years, is unswervingly prochoice?

I begin my talks to students and faculty eager to dissect my heresy with a quote from the second edition of a standard medical textbook, The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment, published by W.B. Saunders Company, a division of Harcourt Brace, in 1991. The editors--all medical school professors at the University of California at San Francisco and experts in fetal treatment--are Michael Harrison, Mitchell Golbus, and Roy Filly.

God is nowhere mentioned in the textbook. The first chapter begins: ''The concept that the fetus is a patient, an individual whose maladies are a proper subject for medical treatment as well as scientific observation, is alarmingly modern. Only now are we beginning to consider the fetus seriously--medically, legally, and ethically.''

In recent years I've interviewed a number of physicians engaged in research on prenatal development. Without exception, they emphasize that human life is a continuum--from the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine lining to birth to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion --as in Roe v. Wade--is artificial. It's a denial of biology. Whether in the fourth or 14th week, it is the life of a developing human being that is being killed. The American Medical News (June 20, 1994)--a weekly publication of the American Medical Association--has reported an analysis of the beginnings of human life by Dr. C. Ward Kischer, a professor in the department of anatomy at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. I commend it to Professor Reed:

''Every point in time is part of a continuum. Therefore, every point in development derives its significance from the previous point. Scientific 'spin doctors' have invented and promoted such bogus biology as 'pre-embryo' and 'stages of individuality,' and have duped many physicians who know little about human embryology. Many of them are now using this pseudo-science to justify human embryo experimentation. The Nuremberg trials settled this question conclusively.''

The Nuremberg trials were concerned solely with human beings, as I am.

In the February 18, 1990, Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Joel Hylton, a physician in Thomasville, North Carolina, who had people like Adolph Reed Jr. in mind, wrote:

''Who can say that the fetus is not alive and is not a separate genetic entity? Its humanity...also cannot be questioned scientifically. It is certainly of no other species. That it is dependent on another makes it qualitatively no different from countless other humans outside the womb.'' (Emphasis added.)

Dr. Hylton added: ''It strikes me that to argue that one may take an innocent life to preserve the quality of life of another is cold and carries utilitarianism to an obscene extreme. Nowhere else in our society is this permitted or even thinkable--although abortion sets a frightening prospect.''

In 1975, Margot Hentoff wrote a piece on abortion in the Voice that created a great deal of comment, most of it savagely critical. Then, as now, she was for abortion rights. Then, as now, she was an admirer of George Orwell and shunned euphemisms. In any context, she does not turn away from--in William Burroughs's phrase--''the naked lunch at the end of the fork.'' To say the least, she is a challenge to live with and has made me more honest than I would have been otherwise.

In the Voice, Margot wrote:

''Here we have one of the problems created by the liberal community's obfuscation of language in refusing to speak plainly about what abortion is.

''They have held on to the illogical concept that the fetus is not a human being, that no killing is involved, and that an abortion is merely an operative procedure on a woman who has the right to decide what she wants to do with her body and the products thereof.''

In the October 16, 1995, New Republic, Naomi Wolf, also strongly prochoice, wrote: ''Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn't a person, and this, over the years, has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization....

''How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real?''

Copyright 1996 VV Publishing Company