An unlikely hero of human dignity died this week, a doctor who once performed thousands of abortions.
During four decades of the abortion wars in the United States there has been much traffic across the battle lines. Many who should have been on the pro-life side positioned themselves in the opposite ranks -- the deceptively named Catholics for a Free Choice is the prime example. This was the easy path, a case of going with the cultural flow under the influence of leading institutions in the media and political life.
Defections from the pro-abortion side, however, have been much more significant, not to mention heroic. Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” plaintiff of the 1973 Supreme Court case which issued in the legalising of abortion throughout the US, became a high profile opponent of abortion and eventually petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn its Roe v Wade decision. Many others have followed her in the public renunciation of the killing of unborn children, most recently Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood clinic operator from Texas, whose story was published last month.
But no convert to the pro-life cause comes near in prominence or influence to Dr Bernard Nathanson, one of the original abortion rights campaigners, who died on Monday at the age of 84. Dr Nathanson, did as much as anyone to launch abortion as a regular means of birth control, but for that very reason he also did more to discredit it once he faced the truth about this “procedure” and began to write and speak against it.
Culture wars -- those that matter -- are always about truth. As an obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Nathanson knew that there was a living human being in the womb of a pregnant woman but he turned his face against this scientific fact -- in the first instance, perhaps, because abortion assisted his own lifestyle. At college in the 1940s he got his girlfriend pregnant and used money from his father to pay for her (illegal) abortion. “It served as my introduction into the satanic world of abortion,” he later wrote. After settling in New York he got another girlfriend pregnant and decided to abort the child -- his child too -- himself. How often denial of the truth is motivated by one’s own misdeeds!
The fact that many people were doing botched illegal abortions provided another excuse for the legalisation campaign that Dr Nathanson became caught up in during the late 1960s. “Illegal abortion was in 1967 the number one killer of pregnant women,” he wrote. Justifications paved the way for lies. In Aborting America (1979) he admitted:
We aroused enough sympathy to sell our program of permissive abortion by fabricating the number of illegal abortions done annually in the U.S. The actual figure was approaching 100,000 but the figure we gave to the media repeatedly was 1,000,000. Repeating the big lie often enough convinces the public. The number of women dying from illegal abortions was around 200-250 annually. The figure we constantly fed to the media was 10,000. These false figures took root in the consciousness of Americans convincing many that we needed to crack the [anti] abortion law.
Another lie -- one that is told wherever abortion is promoted -- was perpetrated by the name, Centre for Reproductive and Sexual Health, given to the New York abortion clinic where, from 1970 to 1972, Dr Nathanson, as director and by his own account, “presided over 60,000 deaths”. The “health” claim in the now numbingly familiar phrase, “sexual and reproductive health”, presumably is based on providing abortions which don’t kill women, but it is entirely cancelled out by the 100 per cent death rate for unborn children.
What brought the abortion “rights” crusader to change his mind -- and, more importantly, his heart? Partly it was peer pressure: because of his public profile as an abortionist he began to be treated as a pariah in legitimate medical circles and received fewer obstetrical referrals. Surely, even at that early stage, it was also the fervour of the right-to-life movement that sprang up in opposition to the abortion campaign -- although he deplored the “blind polarity” and “screaming placards” of both groups in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1974.
In that article, however, Dr Nathanson expressed his misgivings about abortion and the “cry” used to justify it: “that nothing can be human life that cannot exist independently”. There was no longer, he said, “serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy…” Why? Because technology was making liars of everyone who held otherwise:
Electrocardiographic evidence of heart function has been established in embryos as early as six weeks. Electroencephalographic recordings of human brain activity have been noted in embryos at eight weeks. Our capacity to measure signs of life is daily becoming more sophisticated, and as time goes by, we will doubtless be able to isolate life signs at earlier and earlier stages in fetal development.
He performed his last abortion in 1979.
If pro-life activists were the first witnesses to the truth about the unborn child to Dr Nathanson, technology was the other great witness. Ultrasound imaging was developing rapidly and it was images of the child in the womb that eventually convinced him that a true human being is killed in abortion. Using real-time ultrasound images in 1985 he made the famous and electrifying short film, The Silent Scream, showing 12-week child shrinking away from the abortionist’s instruments. In 1987 he produced another film, Eclipse of Reason, showing a late term (five months) abortion in its gruesome and morally shocking detail. The latter film includes testimonies from several ex-abortionists.
Introducing "Eclipse of Reason", actor Charlton Heston pointed out that more than 20 million abortions had been carried out in the US since 1973. Yet, despite the importance of the issue and the huge public debate about it, a complete abortion had never been shown on television. The media had failed to do what they said was their job: to inform the public -- in this case about the facts of abortion.
Today, anyone can watch Dr Nathanson’s and other abortion videos on YouTube, but has any major television network yet shown such pictures? Even displaying graphic posters gets pro-life demonstrators into trouble, as though they were committing an obscenity themselves rather than the people who did the killing. There is a conspiracy among institutions to hide the truth, as Dr Nathanson himself observed.
His own efforts to correct the lies were untiring. In addition to his films there were books -- notably, Aborting America (1979) -- and speaking tours around the world. As he lost friends in the abortion movement and amongst former colleagues, he found new ones in the pro-life movement.
Joan Andrews, an ardent advocate for the unborn child who served more than a year in jail for blocking abortion clinic entrances, was particularly close. She was over 40 before she married Chris Bell and when she conceived, a friend tells me, she “asked Dr Nathanson to look after her pre-natal care. It was a big statement for someone like Joan to have a former abortionist caring for her own baby. I think the trust and confidence she showed in Dr Nathanson helped him to forgive himself for all the harm he had done to mothers and babies.”
Later she served as Dr Nathanson’s godmother when he was baptised in the Catholic Church by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in 1996. It was not inevitable but it was very fitting that the doctor who used to describe himself as a “Jewish atheist” should reach out eventually for The Hand of God -- the title of his book about his whole pro-life journey. A priest who instructed him in the Catholic faith, Fr C. John McCloskey, called the book “one of the more important autobiographies of the twentieth century”, documenting “man’s inhumanity both to humanity and to his personal self, and the possibility of redemption.”
All those murders -- the 75,000 he took responsibility for included 5000 he performed himself and 10,000 performed by interns at St Lukes Hospital in Manhattan -- created a debt of justice that no man could pay by himself. The burden on his awakened conscience must have been extreme, and unbearable without a faith that assured him of forgiveness. He learned that the debt was already paid in full and he only had to make up as best he could for the wrong. Joan Andrews Bell says “he underwent huge amounts of fasting to make up for it”.
He always accused himself before anybody else: “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age,” he wrote in The Hand of God. And, “I know every facet of abortion. I helped nurture the creature in its infancy by feeding it great draughts of blood and money; I guided it through its adolescence as it grew fecklessly out of control.”
The New York Times quotes the latter sentence as an example of Dr Nathanson’s tendency to paint himself in “lurid colours” -- as though it was merely a rhetorical device to make the audience gasp. Everything else, however, points to his deep sincerity and even heroism in completely turning his ideas and his life around. He has earned the right to be counted among the heroes of human dignity.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.