By Nat Henthoff
Editor’s note. The following commentary was written by legendary columnist Nat Hentoff. I begin this reprint a few paragraphs in. He begins with Nebraska’s historic “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”
…As National Right to Life Director of State Legislation Mary Spaulding Balch explains, “Given the overwhelming body of evidence showing that unborn children can feel pain by at least 20 weeks postfertilization, states have a compelling interest to step in and protect these children from the excruciating pain of abortion.
“We fully expect that by the end of the spring state legislative session, more states will join Nebraska in prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks” (www.nrlc.org, Jan. 24).
I am a secularist (non-religious) pro-lifer; but I am also a fact-based reporter. For a partial but long list of clinical scientific studies that document these post-20 weeks pain capabilities, I recommend www.doctorsonfetalpain.com/scientific-studies — beginning with a Nov. 19, 1987, New England Journal of Medicine report, “Pain and Its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus” by Dr. K.J.S Anand, followed by many later studies.
Preparing for this column, I have now read many of these scientific studies. They bring me back to why and how I became a pro-lifer in the 1980s, to the surprise and anger of some of my journalism colleagues. I had long accepted the pro-choice position of most people I knew until, working on a story about a heated abortion controversy, my research included a non-political, non-polemical medical textbook, “The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment” by Harrison, Globus and Filly, published by W.B. Saunders, a division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
What first jolted me, forcing me to read it more than once, was: “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.”
Thus began my controversial path as a pro-lifer. Some women reporters I knew stopped speaking to me. In 1995, when I was astonished to receive the National Press Foundation award for “lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism,” I came to Washington to eagerly accept it.
The head of the foundation had told me the selection committee’s vote was unanimous; but in the elevator on the way to the auditorium, I ran into one of the jurors who laughed when I thanked her for being part of that unanimous recognition.
“Well,” she told me, “there was a very lively session before the final vote.” Immediately guessing what had provoked that lively debate about my being the recipient, I said to the former juror:
“You mean because I’m pro-life?”
She nodded in affirmation. My heresy having been overcome, I took my seat at the table and listened to the introduction from the then editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, the legendary Meg Greenfield, who had some years before made me a weekly columnist for that paper:
“Nat Hentoff is not chic. Never has been, as those of us who have known him over the centuries can attest. Never will be. He is independent, not tribal in his views. And he is stubborn — not to put too fine a point on it, he is terminally stubborn. He has come to the defense of some of the most loathsome human beings in our society when he knew their fundamental rights — and by extension the rights of all — were being endangered.”
Sitting next to me, my wife, on hearing the “stubborn” reference, vigorously nodded assent. But how could I not have become stubbornly pro-life once I saw the fetus as an individual — medically, legally and ethically. I would think that anyone who has seen a multidimensional sonogram of an actual fetus would find it hard to deny that he or she is an individual, a human person.
There was more to my education. In 1997, as I wrote in my memoir, “Speaking Freely” (Alfred A. Knopf): “I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that human life is a continuum from fertilization to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion, for example, is artificial. It is the life of a developing (human) being that is being killed.
“The euphemisms for an aborted fetus — ‘the product of conception’ and ‘a clump of cells’ — are what George Orwell might have called newspeak.” Orwell was a pro-lifer (Crisis Magazine, February 2004).
This year, as versions of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act are introduced in a number of state legislatures, there will obviously be fierce opposition from local, state and national pro-choice organizations and political figures, as well as President Obama. I expect, however, that this Nebraska breakthrough for pro-lifers may well become law in certain states.
One of those laws is likely to come before the Supreme Court. …Mary Spaulding Balch may be right in declaring: “Although it will be a case of first impression, there are strong grounds to believe that five members of the current U.S. Supreme Court would give serious consideration to Nebraska’s assertion of a compelling interest in preserving the life of an unborn child whom substantial medical evidence indicates is capable of feeling pain during an abortion.”
Who knows? Someone whose life is saved by such a law might someday be on the Supreme Court. Or, if Obamacare is repealed, another survivor may find ways to significantly improve health care for many of us, without rationing it.