Bernard Nathanson’s first involvement with abortion was as a medical student at McGill University in Montreal. In 1945, having gotten his girlfriend pregnant, he scheduled and financed her illegal abortion.
In the 1960s, Nathanson, by then a medical doctor practicing obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), became a leader in the movement to overturn laws against abortion. He and Lawrence Lader, who once proclaimed, “Abortion is central to everything in life and how we want to live it,” co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Their goal was to make abortion both culturally and legally acceptable.
To achieve that goal, Nathanson would later admit, they “pursued dubious and in some cases straightforwardly dishonest strategies,” noted Robert George. They promoted the idea that abortion was about medicine, not morality; lied about the number of illegal abortions performed annually and about the number of women who died from them; suggested that opposing abortion was a “religious dogma” imposed by a Catholic hierarchy; and argued that abortion was an effective means to fight poverty.
The Pride of Expertise
In 1970, when New York legalized abortion, Nathanson became the director of the largest freestanding abortion clinic in the world where he oversaw more than 75,000 abortions and performed almost 5,000, including one on his own child. In his autobiography, he confessed:
What is it like to terminate the life of your own child? . . . I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, my colleagues, my casual acquaintances, even my teachers. There was not a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme self-confidence that I was doing a major service for those who sought me out. . . . I had no feelings aside from the sense of accomplishment, the pride of expertise.
By 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade, Nathanson began to question whether the fetus was just an “undifferentiated mass of cells” or a developing human being. He was becoming increasingly sure that an abortion was, in fact, a death, not merely a medical procedure. Yet he continued to perform them because he remained convinced that abortion was “a legitimate solution to a woman’s personal problem.”
The Humility of Truth
In the 1970s, however, a new technology was introduced in the United States that would change Nathanson forever—the ultrasound. For him the ultrasound made it impossible to deny that abortion was anything other than the deliberate killing of a human being. Using ultrasound technology, he would later produce a pro-life documentary, The Silent Scream, with film footage of an actual abortion. He explained:
These [ultrasound] technologies and apparatuses and machines, which we now use everyday, have convinced us that—beyond question—an unborn child is simply another human being, another member of the human community, indistinguishable in every way from any of us. Now, for the first time, we have the technology to see abortion from the victim’s vantage point. Ultrasound imaging has allowed us to see this.
That new technology revealed not only that the unborn child was alive biologically, but alive mentally, too. In 2002, when I heard Nathanson speak to a group of Capitol Hill staffers, he shared a story I won’t soon forget:
We shocked a pregnant woman’s abdomen and watched the sonogram. The fetus jumped. We shocked it again; the fetus jumped halfway. We shocked it a third time; the fetus didn’t jump at all. This is when we discovered that the fetus is a baby with the capacity to learn and adapt. (Paraphrased from memory.)
The Crusade of a New Affection
Nathanson spent the rest of his life fighting the pro-abortion laws he helped put in place. His reasoning, though, wasn’t based on faith. He was a secular Jewish atheist who was convinced by science and human rights, not religion, that abortion was murder.
Gradually, though, the witness of the pro-life believers around him drew Nathanson to faith in God. “Having become persuaded of the truth of the pro-life position,” recalled George, “he was drawn to Catholicism because of the church’s witness—in the face of prejudice Nathanson himself helped to whip up—to the inherent and equal value and dignity of human life in all stages and conditions.”
In 2011, when Nathanson died, George penned an obituary for his friend. Looking back over Nathanson’s life, George noted two lessons. First, truth will prevail and overcome darkness. Second:
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.
Wielding truth and love won’t win over everyone to the cause of life, but it will change those with eyes to see and ears to hear. As truth beckons, “Come and witness the culture of death that undergirds abortion,” minds will be persuaded. As love invites, “Taste and see the culture of life that is Christ crucified for you,” hearts will be softened.
For abortion says, “Your life for mine,” but Jesus says, “My life for yours—even if you’ve killed your own child.”