Published: December 28, 2011
Dr. Bernard Nathanson estimated that he had performed 75,000 abortions, including one on a girlfriend he had impregnated. “I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, my colleagues, casual acquaintances, even my teachers,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, The Hand of God. “There was never a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme self-confidence that I was doing a major service to those who sought me out.”
But he did have doubts. Even before the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in all 50 states, the new use of ultrasound technology in obstetrics gave Nathanson and many others their first glimpse of the living thing inside the womb. Those doubts would lead him from advocating a woman’s right to chose to becoming one of abortion’s key opponents.
Nathanson was born in Manhattan in 1926, an obstetrician/gynecologist’s son in a “secular Jewish” household. His father sent him to Hebrew school and on to McGill University in Montreal; Nathanson later served in the U.S. Air Force. He was licensed to practice medicine in 1952 and board certified as an OB/GYN in 1960. In 1969 he co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, and acted as one of its spokesmen. When New York state legalized abortion in 1970 he took the helm of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in New York City, which was the largest abortion clinic in the country.
Though he had stopped performing abortions years earlier, Nathanson publicly broke with the abortion-rights movement with the 1979 publication of his book Aborting America. He went on to direct and narrate “The Silent Scream,” the 1984 documentary that invigorated the modern anti-abortion movement. President Ronald Reagan screened the film in the White House. Critics scoffed at its overwrought emotional tone.
Nathanson followed with another movie, 1987’s “Eclipse of Reason,” which he meant to correct the earlier film’s overreliance on emotion. The movie proposes two possible futures—one led by reason, with no abortions, and another in which abortions are common. Yet soon after this film, Nathanson began to reconsider the value and utility of pure reason. This process culminated in his 1996 conversion to Catholicism. “I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent,” the thrice-divorced Nathanson wrote in his autobiography. “I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world that failing to believe would condemn me to an eternity perhaps more terrifying than anything Dante envisioned in his celebration of the redemptive fall and rise of Easter. I am afraid.”
One can only hope that the baptismal waters dissolved that fear, and that Nathanson died on Feb. 21 with his worried spirit finally at peace.
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