In 1984, Bernard Nathanson, M.D., was curious about exactly what happens during an abortion procedure. He knew the technical steps involved. He had performed 5,000 abortions. Yet he lacked the visual sense from the perspective of the unborn child.
For him, as a doctor, abortion involved sticking an instrument into a woman’s uterus, turning on a suction machine, and vacuuming out the contents — which ended up as a pile of flesh in a gauze bag. This was not, however, the same as appreciating what transpired from inside the body: from the fetus’s perspective.
The Effect of Ultrasound
No longer performing abortions, Nathanson was actively pro-life at this point. But his friend Dr. Jay Kellinson was deeply involved in the practice of abortion, performing 15 or 20 every day. Nathanson approached him and requested a favor: would he place an ultrasound image recording device on the bodies of all the women undergoing an abortion procedure on the forthcoming Saturday. Kellinson agreed to this ultrasound taping.
Later the two doctors got together to view the tapes. Nathanson’s physician friend, who performed the abortions and did the taping, “was so affected that he never did another abortion. I, though I had not done an abortion in five years, was shaken to the very roots of my soul by what I saw.”1
This was not Nathanson’s moment of conversion to the pro-life cause, though it might have been for his friend. Nevertheless, Nathanson’s own moment was also linked to ultrasound technology. “When ultrasound in the early 1970s confronted me with the sight of the embryo in the womb, I simply lost faith in abortion on demand. I did not struggle to hold on to my old convictions. This change was, in its way, a clean and surgical conversion.” “Having looked at the ultrasound, I could no longer go on as before.”
Nevertheless, he did not immediately cease to perform all abortions. Total cessation occurred early in 1979 or late in 1978. But in those early post “conversion” years, Nathanson did only a few abortion procedures “and those only for what I deemed compelling medical reasons.”
Bernard Nathanson graduated from McGill University Faculty of Medicine in 1949, was licensed in New York State to practice medicine in 1952, and in 1960 was board-certified in gynecology and obstetrics.
A giant in the American abortion controversy on both sides of the isle, Nathanson is connected to some 75,000 abortions over a third of a century beginning in 1945. While at McGill he pressured his girlfriend to obtain a then-illegal abortion. Although he took the Hippocratic oath in 1949, promising that “I will not give a pessary to a woman to produce abortion,”2 he proceeded as a physician to perform 5,000 abortions, including one on a child of his that had been conceived out of wedlock. In addition, he is linked to some 60,000 abortions performed when director, between 1970 and 1972, of the largest abortion clinic in the Western world, New York City’s Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, now closed. Furthermore, he supervised medical residents who performed 10,000 abortions. “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” (Hand of God).
These words of Nathanson indicate that his abortion career had an activist–political dimension. This is indeed true. Influenced by political activist and author Lawrence Lader, he co-founded in 1968-69 the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (today the National Abortion Rights Action League) and was appointed its medical director.
Working with Betty Friedan, he emerged as a foremost supporter of unrestricted abortion both in New York State and nationally. Part of the success strategy was to inflate the number of women’s deaths from unlawful abortions. NARAL cited a figure of 5,000 yearly, when the more likely number was 300.3 Nathanson’s efforts helped prepare the groundwork for the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade (Jan. 22, 1973), which opened the doors for abortion on demand.
Nathanson campaigned for legal abortion out of concern for poor women who could not afford to go outside the country to obtain a legal abortion from a qualified physician and, as a result, were getting abortions that endangered their lives. His concern dated back to his days as a McGill University medical student. At the time he felt that the anti-abortion laws of Canada interfered with the practice of medicine.4
Studying the Developing Fetus
At the end of 1972, Dr. Bernard Nathanson left his job as director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health and accepted a position as chief of obstetrics at St. Luke’s Hospital, a large teaching hospital in New York City. He abandoned his former post partly because his close association with abortion had resulted in damage to his medical reputation. He was getting fewer and fewer obstetrics referrals, a situation that severely disturbed him.5
In his new post at St. Luke’s, he was able to study more closely the developing fetus. He had time to reflect on the reality of a developing human whom he was now able to view through the technology of ultrasound. “. . .I began to rethink the prenatal phase of life. . . .When I began to study fetology, it dawned on me, finally, that the prenatal nine months are just another band in the spectrum of life.”6 Bonding with and loving the fetus, Nathanson became convinced that abortion destroys the life of a genuine human being.7 Until his eyes were opened by ultrasound, this idea had not fully registered for him.8 The 20th century had succeeded in creating for him and other physicians doubts as to the true humanity of the unborn child.9
Late in the 1970s, after Nathanson performed his last abortion, he came “to the conclusion that there was no reason for an abortion at any time; this person in the womb is a living human being, and we could not continue to wage war against the most defenseless of human beings” (Hand of God).
Acting on his convictions he became a pro-life leader and an unrelenting pro-life witness.10 Not only did he speak at numerous pro-life gatherings in the U.S. and abroad, he produced two powerful documentary movies, The Silent Scream (1985) and Eclipse of Reason (1987) and wrote several substantial pro-life books including Aborting America (1979), The Abortion Papers (1983), and The Hand of God (1996), his autobiography.
The Silent Scream resulted from a viewing of the ultrasound tapes that Dr. Jay Kellinson had made at Nathanson’s request of the 15 or 20 abortions that Kellinson had performed one Saturday in 1984. Nathanson selected a particularly good tape and started showing it around the country at pro-life gatherings. The response was dramatic and intense. The tape caught the attention of a Don Smith who developed it into a documentary movie that Nathanson narrated and directed.
The movie portrays an open-mouthed three-month-old fetus seemingly screaming at an approaching surgical instrument intended for his destruction. The first showing occurred in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Jan. 3, 1985. “The reaction was instantaneous. Everybody was up in arms because The Silent Scream represented an enormous threat to the abortion forces and because it escalated the war.... For the first time, we had the technology and they had nothing.”11 The movie was viewed in the White House by Ronald Reagan.
Two years later Nathanson produced Eclipse of Reason, a documentary narrated by Charlton Heston, that highlighted the horrors of late term abortions.
In Nathanson’s book Aborting America, he asserts that we have virtual certainty that human life begins at conception. He argues that it contradicts the basic foundations of civilized society to allow the destruction of what is very likely a human being except to save the life of a person.
In referring to the unborn child from fertilization onward, Nathanson utilizes the shortcut term alpha. “The obvious scientific conclusion is that alpha is demonstrably an independent human entity (life). The obvious moral conclusion is that alpha’s destruction cannot be justified unless, on clear medical grounds, the mother’s life is at stake” (Aborting America).
At the time as Aborting America was published, Nathanson had converted to the pro-life cause, but he was not yet a believer in God. He was far from being a Catholic. His conclusions were based on a scientifically grounded humanistic philosophy.12
Sense of Sin
Between the time he acquired a pro-life concern and the time he accepted God, about 1978-1988, Nathanson was overwhelmed by a sense of sin and guilt because of his past enormous abortion involvement and support and because he had badly failed people he loved, including his second and third wives. “I would awaken each morning at four or five o’clock, staring into the darkness and hoping (but not praying, yet) for a message to flare forth acquitting me before some invisible jury” (Hand of God). Minutes later he would proceed to read some of the literature he had acquired on sin. He sometimes contemplated suicide. A sister and grandfather had taken their lives. His father had attempted unsuccessfully.
During this period Nathanson was courteous with clergymen, while making it clear that the only belief they held in common was opposition to abortion. This situation would soon change.
Experience of God’s Presence
One freezing January morning in 1989, Bernard Nathanson, a Jewish atheist turned pro-lifer, began seriously to entertain the idea of God. He found himself outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Manhattan, doing interviews with some of the 1,200 Operation Rescue workers sitting in rows and systematically blocking entrances and exits to the facility. His intention was to compose an essay on the morality of blocking an abortion clinic. He observed the protestors singing hymns, wrapping their arms around each other and smiling at reporters and police. He listened to them pray: not each one for himself and his safety but for the women pursuing abortions, for the pre-born children in their wombs, for the physicians and nurses in the clinics, for the reporters present, and for the multitude of police. What he saw and heard had a profound effect on him. “. . .I apprehended the exaltation, the pure love on the faces of that shivering mass of people, surrounded. . .by hundreds of New York City policemen” (HG). The sheer intensity of their selfless love and prayer astonished Nathanson. “ . . .I wondered: how can these people give of themselves for a constituency that is (and will always be) mute, invisible and unable to thank them?” (HG).
Nathanson was likewise moved when he later observed pro-life demonstrations south of Los Angeles and in New Orleans. The participants in these demonstrations likewise radiated an intensity of spirituality. “The demonstrators were ecumenical, with as many Catholics as Protestants, and nonviolent, and they were so deeply rooted in spiritual conviction that even the police hung back, in deference, I believe, to the purity of the action” (HG).
Nathanson was aware in the 1980s that many Catholics and Protestants were praying for his religious conversion. But it was not until he witnessed for himself Christians put to the test and remaining nonviolent, cheerful and prayer-filled that he began to entertain the idea of God truly. They were being fined and jailed. They were the recipients of ugly epithets hurled at them. But through it all they were convinced of their ultimate triumph. They recognized the righteousness of their cause and could sing, pray quietly and smile.
Nathanson wondered what indescribable force undergirded their activity. He even wondered what had brought him to witness these things. “Was it the same force that allowed them to sit serene and unafraid at the epicenter of legal, physical and moral chaos?”(HG). “And for the first time in my entire adult life, I began to entertain seriously the notion of God...”(HG). Shortly before his conversion to Catholicism, Nathanson was still deeply moved by the loving goodness radiating from the faces of pro-lifers. “At every pro-life rally at which I speak, I still apprehend the ecstatic faces, radiating such love and joy that I find an icy knot deep within me slowly thawing into rhapsodic waves of warmth”(HG).
Conversion to Catholicism
Nathanson’s openness to God moved him toward Catholicism in part because of the efforts of Father John McCloskey, an Opus Dei intellectual priest with whom he had frequent meetings. Dr. Nathanson would say of Father McCloskey: “He’s receptive, he’s a listener, and he speaks the language of reason and erudition.... He’s sympathetic with someone like myself who is seeking faith but still wants reason...”13 In turn, McCloskey stated regarding Nathanson, “It requires true courage to admit not only that you’re wrong but that you’re awfully wrong.” “He is a man of goodwill and a man interested in pursuing the truth no matter what the cost.”
Also instrumental in Nathanson’s conversion to Catholicism was a book by Karl Stern. A medical school teacher of his whom Nathanson idolized, Stern was a renowned psychoanalyst and Orthodox Jew who became a Catholic and wrote about his conversion in Pillar of Fire. Nathanson found that when Stern penned a note to his brother in Israel, he entertained in an eloquent and sensitive way the doubts and questions that a trained professional might have. Nathanson read the letter several times. “With each reading, I found myself fighting back the tears” (HG). For Nathanson the very last step to conversion, namely baptism, proved to be difficult,14 but with the support and encouragement of Father McCloskey he managed to take it. He was baptized in 1996 by Cardinal John J. O’Connor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Manhattan.
Nathanson left a vivid description of his baptism experience. “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.”15 When asked why he converted to Catholicism, Nathanson responded that “no religion matches the special role for forgiveness that is afforded by the Catholic Church.”16 Before his baptism he said enthusiastically, “I will be free from sin.”17 Nathanson chose to become a Catholic among other reasons because Catholicism assured him “that someone died for my sins and evil two millennia ago” (Ibid.).
Father Gerald Murray, homilist at Nathanson’s funeral (Feb. 21, 2011), said the ex-abortionist found peace in Christ during the final 14 years of his life.
The suffering Nathanson witnessed through ultrasound technology on the faces of babies being surgically aborted confirmed him in the rightness of the pro-life cause. The peace, love and joy he observed on the faces of pro-life activists guided him ultimately to the peace and forgiveness of Christ in the Catholic Church.
Ultrasound opened Nathanson’s eyes to the humanity of the unborn child. The goodness and serenity of pro-life demonstrators opened his heart to the reality of the Divine. TP
1 Bernard Nathanson, M.D., The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, 1996), p. 141.
2 Bernard Nathanson, M.D., The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality (New York: Frederick Fell Publishers, 1983), p. 111. “I took that oath on the grassy quadrangle of McGill University on a misty June day in 1949, a gentle and more innocent time, and now to my sorrow the oath has been cast into desuetude. . .” Ibid., p. 112.
3 “Our favorite tack was to blame the church [Roman Catholic] for the death of every woman from a botched abortion. There were perhaps three hundred or so deaths from criminal abortions annually in the United States in the sixties, but NARAL in its press releases claimed to have the data that supported a figure of five thousand.” Ibid., p. 90, my brackets.
4 Bernard Nathanson, M.D., with Richard Osling, Aborting America (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979).
5 Hand of God, p. 124.
6 Ibid., p. 130. He had the opportunity to develop a theory, the vector theory of life. “To me the most compelling factor establishing that the embryo, even at the earliest stages, before implantation in the uterus is an automous (though dependent) human agent of moral consequence is the ‘vector theory of life.’” Ibid., 135. “By vector of life, I mean the forces and velocities of life, directed to a specific end.” Ibid. From the moment of conception the embryo fetus is endowed with a self-directed force which, if left undisturbed, will result in the birth of a baby. “[T]here is a vector of life: a direction and velocity of life forces that is perfectly programmed, irresistibly logical, and immutably fixed in time and space.” Ibid., p. 136.
7 “For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it.” Ibid., p. 125.
8 “[A]lthough we had a mound (literally) of imperial data attesting to the fact that a living human being had been destroyed in the act of abortion, it was not until the advent of ultrasound technology that a true paradigm choice took place.” Ibid., p. 146.
9 It had not always been that way, certainly not in the medical community. “It is an historical irony that physicians of antiquity and even into the nineteenth century understood in a visceral way, lacking any of the rudiments of embryology, that the fetus was human.” Cf. Abortion Papers, p. 113.
10 Father Gerald E. Murray, who frequently visited Nathanson at his home during his final illness to bring him Communion, said of him that he was “a towering figure” in the United States pro-life movement. He described him as “an unrelenting witness on behalf of those killed or threatened with death through abortion.” Cf. Mary Ann Poust, “Dr. Nathanson Remembered for Courage, Commitment,” Catholic New York (March 10, 2011), p. 37.
11 Hand of God, p. 141. “The Silent Scream depicted a 12-week old fetus being torn to pieces in utero by the combination of suction and crushing instrumentation by the abortionist. It was so powerful that pro-choicers trotted out their heaviest hitters to denounce the tape.” Ibid.
12 “I have reached my conclusions very reluctantly, after six years of self-examination, but that makes the conclusions no less certain. . . . [T]his is a humanistic philosophy drawn from biological data, not from religious creeds.” Ibid., p. 259.
13 Julia Duin, “Bernard Nathanson’s Conversion,” Crisis Magazine (June 1996).
14 “ . . .I have found myself forever on the threshold of blessed surrender to faith but always reluctant to take the last, irrevocable steps.” Ibid., p. 195.
15 Stephen Vincent, “Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011): Abortion Doctor-Turned Pro-Life Advocate,” National Catholic Register 87 (6) (March 13, 2011), p. 10.
16 “Bernard Nathanson,” Wikipedia.
17 Duin, “Conversion,” p. 4.
Dr. DeCelles, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Marywood University, Scranton, Pa., has been a pro-life activist for 30 years and has taught theology at the college level for 42 years.