Tomorrow morning in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Archbishop Timothy Dolan will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial for a giant of the pro-life movement: Dr. Bernard Nathanson.
Few people, if any, did more than Bernard Nathanson to undermine the right to life of unborn children by turning abortion from an unspeakable crime into a constitutionally protected liberty. Someday, when our law is reformed to honor the dignity and protect the right to life of every member of the human family, including children in the womb, historians will observe that few people did more than Bernard Nathanson to achieve that reversal.
Dr. Nathanson, the son of a distinguished medical practitioner and professor who specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, had his first involvement with abortion as a medical student at McGill University in Montreal. Having impregnated a girlfriend, he arranged and paid for her illegal abortion. Many years later, he would mark this episode as his “introductory excursion into the satanic world of abortion.”
In the meantime, however, Nathanson would become a nearly monomaniacal crusader for abortion and campaigner for its legalization. And he would himself become an abortionist.
By his own estimate, he presided over more than 60,000 abortions as Director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, personally instructed medical students and practitioners in the performance of about 15,000 more, and performed 5,000 abortions himself. In one of those abortions, he took the life of his own son or daughter—a child conceived with a girlfriend after he had established his medical practice. Writing with deep regret in his moving autobiography The Hand of God (1996), Nathanson confessed his own heartlessness in performing that abortion: “I swear to you, I had no feelings aside from the sense of accomplishment, the pride of expertise.”
In the mid-1960s, with the sexual revolution roaring after Alfred Kinsey’s fraudulent but influential “scientific” studies of sex and sexuality in America, Hugh Hefner’s aggressive campaign to legitimize pornography and, perhaps above all, the wide distribution of the anovulant birth control pill, Nathanson became a leader in the movement to overturn laws prohibiting abortion. He co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), which later became the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and is now NARAL Pro-Choice America. Its goal was to remove the cultural stigma on abortion, eliminate all meaningful legal restraints on it, and make it as widely available as possible across the nation and, indeed, the globe.
To achieve these goals, Nathanson would later reveal, he and fellow abortion crusaders pursued dubious and in some cases straightforwardly dishonest strategies.
First, they promoted the idea that abortion is a medical issue, not a moral one. This required persuading people of the rather obvious falsehood that a normal pregnancy is a natural and healthy condition if the mother wants her baby, and a disease if she does not. The point of medicine, to maintain and restore health, had to be recast as giving health care consumers what they happen to want; and the Hippocratic Oath’s explicit prohibition of abortion had to be removed. In the end, Nathanson and his collaborators succeeded in selling this propaganda to a small but extraordinarily powerful group of men: in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, seven Supreme Court justices led by Harry Blackmun, former counsel to the American Medical Association, invalidated virtually all state laws providing meaningful protection for unborn children on the ground that abortion is a “private choice” to be made by women and their doctors.
Second, Nathanson and his friends lied—relentlessly and spectacularly—about the number of women who died each year from illegal abortions. Their pitch to voters, lawmakers, and judges was that women are going to seek abortion in roughly equal numbers whether it is lawful or not. The only effect of outlawing it, they claimed, is to limit pregnant women to unqualified and often uncaring practitioners, “back alley butchers.” So, Nathanson and others insisted, laws against abortion are worse than futile: they do not save fetal lives; they only cost women’s lives.
Now some women did die from unlawful abortions, though factors other than legalization, especially the development of antibiotics such as penicillin, are mainly responsible for reducing the rate and number of maternal deaths. And of course, the number of unborn babies whose lives were taken shot up dramatically after Nathanson and his colleagues achieved their goals; and they achieved them, in part, by claiming that the number of illegal abortions was more than ten times higher than it actually was.
Third, the early advocates of abortion deliberately exploited anti-Catholic animus among liberal elites and (in those days) many ordinary Protestants to depict opposition to abortion as a “religious dogma” that the Catholic hierarchy sought to impose on others in violation of their freedom and the separation of church and state. Nathanson and his friends recognized that their movement needed an enemy—a widely suspected institution that they could make the public face of their opposition; a minority, but one large and potent enough for its detractors to fear.
Despite the undeniable historical fact that prohibitions of abortion were rooted in English common law and reinforced and expanded by statutes enacted across the United States by overwhelmingly Protestant majorities in the 19th century, Nathanson and other abortion movement leaders decided that the Catholic Church was perfect for the role of freedom-smothering oppressor. Its male priesthood and authority structure would make it easy for them to depict the Church’s opposition to abortion as misogyny, for which concern to protect unborn babies was a mere pretext. The Church’s real motive, they insisted, was to restrict women’s freedom in order to hold them in positions of subservience.
Fourth, the abortion movement sought to appeal to conservatives and liberals alike by promoting feticide as a way of fighting poverty. Why are so many people poor? It’s because they have more children than they can afford to care for. What’s the solution? Abortion. Why do we have to spend so much money on welfare? It’s because poor, mainly minority, women are burdening the taxpayer with too many babies. The solution? Abortion. Initially, Nathanson himself believed that legal abortion and its public funding would reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing and poverty, though (as he later admitted) he continued to promote this falsehood after the sheer weight of evidence forced him to disbelieve it.
Within a year after Roe v. Wade, however, Nathanson began to have moral doubts about the cause to which he had been so single-mindedly devoted. In a widely noticed 1974 essay in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, he revealed his growing doubts about the “pro-choice” dogma that abortion was merely the removal of an “undifferentiated mass of cells,” and not the killing of a developing human being. Referring to abortions that he had supervised or performed, he confessed to an “increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.”
Still, he was not ready to abandon support for legal abortion. It was, he continued to insist, necessary to prevent the bad consequences of illegal abortions. But he was moving from viewing abortion itself as a legitimate solution to a woman’s personal problem, to seeing it as an evil that should be discouraged, even if for practical reasons it had to be tolerated. Over the next several years, while continuing to perform abortions for what he regarded as legitimate “health” reasons, Nathanson would be moved still further toward the pro-life position by the emergence of new technologies, especially fetoscopy and ultrasound, that made it increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, to deny that abortion is the deliberate killing of a unique human being—a child in the womb.
By 1980, the weight of evidence in favor of the pro-life position had overwhelmed Nathanson and driven him out of the practice of abortion. He had come to regard the procedure as unjustified homicide and refused to perform it. Soon he was dedicating himself to the fight against abortion and revealing to the world the lies he and his abortion movement colleagues had told to break down public opposition.
In 1985, Nathanson employed the new fetal imaging technology to produce a documentary film, “The Silent Scream,” which energized the pro-life movement and threw the pro-choice side onto the defensive by showing in graphic detail the killing of a twelve-week-old fetus in a suction abortion. Nathanson used the footage to describe the facts of fetal development and to make the case for the humanity and dignity of the child in the womb. At one point, viewers see the child draw back from the surgical instrument and open his mouth: “This,” Nathanson says in the narration, “is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.”
Publicity for “The Silent Scream” was provided by no less a figure than President Ronald Reagan, who showed the film in the White House and touted it in speeches. Like Nathanson, Reagan, who had signed one of the first abortion-legalization bills when he was Governor of California, was a zealous convert to the pro-life cause. During his term as president, Reagan wrote and published a powerful pro-life book entitled Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation—a book that Nathanson praised for telling the truth about the life of the child in the womb and the injustice of abortion.
Nathanson, long an unbeliever, continued to profess atheism for several years after his defection from the pro-choice to the pro-life side. His argument against abortion was not, he insisted, religious; it was based on scientific facts and generally accepted principles of the rights and dignity of the human person. In this, his views were very much in line with those of the great pro-life convert Nat Hentoff, a distinguished civil libertarian and writer for the liberal and secularist newspaper The Village Voice. But unlike Hentoff, who remains unconvinced of the claims of religion, Nathanson was gradually drawn to faith in God and ultimately to Catholicism by the moral witness of the believers among his newfound comrades in the struggle for the unborn.
As Nathanson frequently observed, it was not that he became Catholic and then embraced the pro-life view because it was the Church’s teaching. If anything, it was the other way around. Having become persuaded of the truth of the pro-life position, he was drawn to Catholicism because of the Church’s witness—in the face of prejudice Nathanson himself had helped to whip up—to the inherent and equal value and dignity of human life in all stages and conditions.
Nathanson was baptized and received into the Catholic Church in 1996 by Archbishop Dolan’s predecessor John Cardinal O’Connor in a ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He chose as his godmother Joan Andrews Bell, a woman revered among pro-lifers for her willingness to suffer more than a year of imprisonment for blockading abortion facilities. Reflecting on her godson’s conversion, she said that Nathanson was “like St. Paul, who was a great persecutor of the Church, yet when he saw the light of Christ, he was perhaps the greatest apostle for the Gospel. Dr. Nathanson was like that after his conversion. He went all around the world talking about the babies and the evils of abortion.”
There are many lessons in Bernard Nathanson’s life for those of us who recognize the worth and dignity of all human lives and who seek to win hearts and change laws. Two in particular stand out for me.
First is the luminous power of truth. As I have written elsewhere, and as Nathanson’s own testimony confirms, the edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies. Nathanson told those lies; indeed, he helped to invent them. But others witnessed to truth. And when he was exposed to their bold, un-intimidated, self-sacrificial witness, the truth overcame the darkness in Nathanson’s heart and convicted him in the court of his own conscience.
Bernie and I became friends in the early 1990s, shortly after my own pro-life writings came to his attention. Once during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave at Princeton, I asked him: “When you were promoting abortion, you were willing to lie in what you regarded as a good cause. Now that you have been converted to the cause of life, would you be willing to lie to save babies? How do those who hear your speeches and read your books and articles know that you are not lying now?” It was, I confess, an impertinently phrased question, but also, I believe, an important one. He seemed a bit stunned by it, and after a moment said, very quietly, “No, I wouldn’t lie, even to save babies.” At the dinner he and I had with students afterward, he explained himself further: “You said that I was converted to the cause of life; and that’s true. But you must remember that I was converted to the cause of life only because I was converted to the cause of truth. That’s why I wouldn’t lie, even in a good cause.”
The second lesson is this: We in the pro-life movement have no enemies to destroy. Our weapons are chaste weapons of the spirit: truth and love. Our task is less to defeat our opponents than to win them to the cause of life. To be sure, we must oppose the culture and politics of death resolutely and with a determination to win. But there is no one—no one—whose heart is so hard that he or she cannot be won over. Let us not lose faith in the power of our weapons to transform even the most resolute abortion advocates. The most dedicated abortion supporters are potential allies in the cause of life. It is the loving, prayerful, self-sacrificing witness of Joan Bell Andrews and so many other dedicated pro-life activists that softens the hearts and changes the lives of people like Dr. Bernard Nathanson.
May he rest in peace.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.