Dr. Bernard Nathanson, RIP

A great man has passed.

I am very sad tonight, after just getting this news. Although I did not meet Dr. Nathanson personally, I feel as if I knew him. He was in the pro-life movement nearly as long as I have been — I have known of him and followed him all my adult life, and was hugely influenced in my youth by his book Aborting America, in which he fearlessly and with brutal honesty described his pivotal role in the abortion movement and his career as an abortionist who presided over the deaths of 75,000 babies.

In that book, he described how he and the other two co-founders of the National Association for the Reform of Abortion Laws (NARAL) deceived the public and framed the debate in order to build support for the legalization of abortion. (You can read his own very short summary of their tactics here.) But Nathanson also describes in his book how he came to realize what abortion really was. And once he did, he quit, and never looked back — indeed, he dedicated the rest of his life to fighting the Culture of Death that he had helped to create. He was that most courageous of men: one who admitted — and very publicly — that he had been wrong. And then do his best to repair the damage, all the while knowing that amends could never really be made. After all, nothing could bring those babies back.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson in his film The Silent ScreamNathanson was the first really high-profile “defection” to the Culture of Life. Years later, there would be others, including the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, Norma McCorvey. But Nathanson was the first “big fish.” The remarkable thing about Nathanson’s conversion was that it was not a religious conversion. He’d been raised in a secular Jewish family, and was a very staunch atheist. What convinced him of the truth about abortion was the scientific evidence. John Mallon writes:

In the early 70s Nathanson began to have doubts about abortion, and with the advent of ultrasound he persuaded a colleague who was doing 15-20 abortions a day to record an abortion using the new technology.

After the two of them viewed the results his colleague never did another abortion, and Nathanson wrote, “I … was shaken to the very roots of my soul by what I saw.”

This began a long soul-searching journey for Nathanson.

In 1984, he incorporated the ultrasound films into a commercial quality film called The Silent Scream, demonstrating the humanity of the unborn child. The film created a sensation and the film has since become the most famous and sought-after pro-life video

I had the privilege of hearing Nathanson speak in person, in 1982, just a few short years after his conversion to the pro-life cause. It was a state Right to Life convention, and he was one of several people seated up on the stage. I have absolutely no recollection of any of the other speakers. Nathanson was the one I was there to hear; Nathanson was the one I will never forget. Someone — a priest? a minister? — gave an invocation, and while everyone else in the room bowed their heads, I peeked up at the stage and saw Nathanson the atheist sitting there, stone-faced, staring straight ahead, looking as if “the God stuff” was something distasteful that he forced himself to sit through so that he could give his message — a message he had to give, a message he would go anywhere and sit through anything to have the chance to give.

Unlike many abortionists, Nathanson was a competent, caring physician. He had gotten into the business because he passionately believed at the time that he was providing a service for desperate women. As he described in Aborting America, the abortion business does not tend to attract the best doctors; Nathanson was always appalled and disgusted by the quacks, perverts and greedheads that tend to fill the ranks of abortionists. He always prided himself in being a competent and conscientious doctor.

Imagine, then, the psychological impact on such a person of realizing that he had killed, or supervised the killing, of some 75,000 human beings. Now imagine what it would be like to come to that realization as an atheist, having no faith in a God who could forgive you. And yet, the man lived with that burden, and forged ahead, working tirelessly, incessantly, in the pro-life cause. He was one of the few public speakers I’ve ever heard who did not start, end, or at any time punctuate his speech with any humor or small talk whatsoever.

From the National Catholic Register:

Outlining the enormous challenge of restoring a pro-life ethic, he wrote, “Abortion is now a monster so unimaginably gargantuan that even to think of stuffing it back into its cage … is ludicrous beyond words. Yet that is our charge — a herculean endeavor.”

He noted, regretfully, “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age.”

How was he able to bear his burden of guilt, and shoulder that responsibility, without the comfort of faith? Many years later, he would say that, unbeknownst to him at the time, “the hand of God” had been on him. And that is what he titled his 1996 memoir, The Hand of God. During the ’90s, Nathanson saw pro-life activists praying outside abortion clinics. On one particular occasion, police came to remove them. Despite the peaceableness and complete non-violence of the prayerful protesters, the police were very rough with them, manhandling them, even injuring some elderly nuns. Yet the nuns stayed calm and continued to radiate love and peace even as they were being dragged off roughly and brutally. Nathanson was astounded; what was going on? How could they remain so sweet-spirited in the face of such injustice? Where did that amazing peace and joy come from? He said that for the first time, he came to realize that there might really be a God; nothing else could explain what he was seeing.

The sight of so many pro-lifers selflessly sacrificing their selves… made him realize that they must be answering a higher call, he explained.

On the one hand, this gave him comfort; on the other, it scared the heck out of him. After all, if there really was a God, mustn’t there be a judgment, a final reckoning? He was getting on in years, and he was haunted by the 75,000 lives hanging over his head. It got harder and harder for him to sleep at night. He sometimes panicked, bordering on despair. How could he ever be forgiven? More and more, the Gospel spoke to his heart. He came to realize, albeit with fear and trembling, that there was hope.

The Catholic Church, in particular, appealed to him, because of the sacrament of Confession and its promise of real, true forgiveness of even the most monstrous sin, if the sinner is repentant. At the time of the book’s writing, he was taking instruction in the Catholic faith.

in December of 1996 he was baptized a Catholic by Cardinal John O’Connor in a private Mass with a group of friends in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He also received confirmation and first Communion from the cardinal. About his baptism, he said, “I was in a real whirlpool of emotion, and then there was this healing, cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place.”

Among those concelebrating the Mass was Father C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who had instructed Nathanson in the faith over a number of years.

“He was a pro-life prophet,” Father McCloskey said in a recent Register interview. “He saw the whole culture of death coming, and knew that abortion was just the tip of the iceberg.”

…After his baptism, Father McCloskey said, “He practiced the faith, he frequented the sacraments, and spoke about his Catholicism unabashedly.”

…In an epilogue to the second edition of The Hand of God, Father McCloskey called the book “one of the more important autobiographies of the twentieth century,” which documents “man’s inhumanity both to humanity and to his personal self, and the possibility of redemption.”

Another strong factor in his conversion was the book Pillar of Fire, by noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Stern, who tells of his own journey from Judaism to the Catholic Church. Nathanson [had] studied briefly under Stern in medical school, though at that time he did not know about Stern’s conversion. It was only years later, when Nathanson read Pillar of Fire, that he learned of his former professor’s religious views.

Nathanson’s godmother for baptism was Joan Andrews Bell, who had served more than a year in jail for [civil disobedience at] abortion businesses.

She said she spoke to Nathanson by phone in February 2011, when he only had the strength to speak a few sentences. “He said he was praying for us, and I told him we love him and pray for him, too,” she said.

“He will be remembered as a very strong advocate for the babies,” she continued. “One factor stood out, knowing him over the years, and that was that he had a deep pain for what he had done in terms of abortion. I remember there were periods he was fasting; he underwent huge amounts of fasting to make up for it.”

She said that he had “a deep and tender heart,” and that once he saw the truth about abortion, he was determined to stop it. “He 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. Being his godmother was such an amazing thing, to see him come to Christ.”

In his later years, Nathanson became more and more concerned about other evils coming out of the Pandora’s box that legalized abortion had opened. At an age when many are enjoying their retirement, he went back to school, and at the age of 70, received his master’s degree in bioethics. He was a member of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission, and spoke out very persuasively against human cloning and the abuse of genetic engineering to create “designer humans.” (You can order audio CDs of some of his speeches on these topics here. He was a great speaker.)

I will give the final word to the American Catholic:

Nathanson’s life is proof of the power of redemption, and that no matter how scarlet our sins we can all be made white as snow with the Grace of God. The still small voice of God in every human soul is the greatest ally of the pro-life cause, and why it will ultimately prevail.

Requiescat in pace.


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