Anyone involved in the abortion debate – no matter which side they are on – will know of Bernard Nathanson. A key player in the abortion wars, he passed away in America this week aged 84. After a lengthy battle against cancer, he passed away on Monday.
He was one of a number of very famous players in the abortion conflict to have made a radical turnaround. He began as a radical pro-abortionist, but ended up a dedicated pro-lifer. His story has been told in two books he has written. The first is Aborting America which he wrote in 1979 (Doubleday).
The second is The Hand of God which appeared in 1996 (Regnery). These two books describe his amazing transformation from a hard-core abortionist to a Christian and a pro-life advocate. And it really was a remarkable story.
Nathanson helped to found NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, in 1969, and was the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health – then the world’s largest abortion clinic – from 1971 to 1972. He speaks of “my seventy-five thousand encounters with abortion”. He was one of America’s most notorious abortionists and pro-death campaigners.
So he was no small player in all this. He was one of the big guns in pushing the abortion agenda, and his impact was huge. In his books he tells the story of how he was happy to lie for the good of the cause. A classic example of this was the issue of abortion-related deaths in the US before its legalisation in 1973.
The pro-abortion activists have always claimed that thousands of women died each year in America before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion. Nathanson helped to make up this figure of 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.
He said this about it: “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.”
Nathanson went on to describe the real figures: “In 1967 … the federal government listed only 160 deaths from illegal abortion. In the last year before [Roe v Wade], 1972, the total was only 39 deaths”. While 39 deaths are too many, the figure must be held up to the 1.5 million babies killed each year in the US since 1973.
In his books he describes other deceptive activities which the pro-aborts engaged in to push their case. Any group of people who seem to have no moral compunction about killing living babies will of course have little problem with the immorality of deception, falsehood and propaganda.
And Nathanson talks about what a lucrative business abortion is. Money flows into the abortion clinics – and the abortionists’ wallets. Looking back on all this greed, deception and moral darkness, he said this:
“I am struck by the uncritical nature of the task we had set for ourselves, by the moral and spiritual vacuum at the core of this fantastic operation, by our unquestioned certainty of the high level of moral rectitude on which we operated. And yet, the thing was so obviously sordid.
“Why couldn’t we make the link between the ethical and the moral, between the shoddy practices and shabby practitioners, the evident greed and callous motives, between the crassness of the enterprise and those involved in it, between all these ethical indicators and the grotesque immorality of the act itself?”
Even more chilling is his account of how he aborted his own baby. He impregnated a woman who deeply loved him. “I not only demanded that she terminate the pregnancy as a condition of maintaining our relationship, but also coolly informed her that since I was one of the most skilled practitioners of the art, I myself would do the abortion. And I did.”
He says it was “aseptic and clinical”. Did he experience any regret or remorse? “No and no. And that, dear reader, is the mentality of the abortionist: another job well done, another demonstration of the moral neutrality of advanced technology in the hands of the amoral.”
His own journey out of the abortion industry was sparked by various things, including botched abortions – all now fully legal of course – resulting in many young women dying. The development of ultrasound was another key aspect of this conversion.
Now, for the first time, the unborn baby could be clearly observed. Thus by 1974 Nathanson was having doubts about abortion on demand. He expressed his doubts about what he was doing in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. It received the highest number of responses ever for the journal.
And he received bags full of mail and numerous phone calls as well. Most of it was hate mail, death threats and ugly vituperation. He continued doing abortions for the next few years, but the moral conflict warring within him became unbearable.
“On one floor of the hospital we would be delivering babies, and on another floor doing abortions. Because Roe v. Wade didn’t set any restrictions, we could do abortions into the ninth month, before the first labor pain.” Thus by the late 70s he was only doing select abortions.
His last abortion was performed in 1979. His decision to leave the abortion industry was purely on empirical grounds, not for religious reasons. Technological innovation, especially fetoscopy and ultrasound, really made it clear what – or who – was inhabiting the world of the womb.
By the early 80s he was speaking at pro-life meetings. In January 1985 he had the first showing of his remarkable video, The Silent Scream. It showed the horrific results of “a twelve-week-old fetus being torn to pieces in utero by the combination of suction and crushing instrumentation by the abortionist.”
By showing the whole world about the truth of abortion, it of course provoked an immediate and ferocious attack from the abortion industry. They did everything they could to discredit the film and Nathanson. But this black and white film made its impact, and powerfully helped to equip the growing pro-life movement.
His second documentary, The Eclipse of Reason, a colour video on late-term abortion, appeared in 1987. In 1996 the Jewish atheist converted to Catholicism. He was active in the pro-life movement for the rest of his life. His passing is now the topic of many eulogies. Here are a few words of praise for this remarkable man:
The head of the American Life League, Judie Brown, said this: “I think thousands of pro-life people around the world will sorely miss this great man, his honesty, his tenacity and his unwavering commitment to truth. I remember his famous visit to the Reagan White House with us in 1982, and the fascination the president had with Dr. Nathanson. Their friendship grew and when the Silent Scream was ready to be debuted, President Reagan asked Dr. Nathanson for a preview showing. After that, the rest is history.”
Jeanne Head, National Right to Life Committee Vice President, said, “Dr. Nathanson was probably one of the individuals most responsible for Roe v. Wade and, once he realized his error, he dedicated the rest of his life to reversing it.”
And Live Action President Lila Rose said, “Today our movement mourns the passing of one of its greatest voices for life. Dr. Nathanson is a testament to God’s grace; that any heart can be transformed into a beacon of love and truth.”
The pro-life movement owes a huge debt of gratitude to this man, who is now at home, enjoying his eternal rest.