BY Clinton wilcox
The late Doctor Bernard Nathanson was well-known for the role that he played in helping get abortion legalized in the United States. In 1969 he co-founded the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL, and later re-named the National Abortion Rights Action League after abortion was legalized in 1973).
Although he converted to Catholicism later in life, when he converted to the prolife position he was an atheist. After his conversion he went on to write a book about his conversion, called Aborting America, and even narrated the 1984 controversial pro-life film The Silent Scream (which I have not seen, for fear that it would be far too disturbing for me). He sadly passed away on February 21, 2011, of cancer.
So what marked the conversion from prochoice abortionist to pro-life physician? The information contained in what follows is drawn from Dr. Nathanson’s book Aborting America, co-written with Richard N. Ostling (Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1979), and all quotations come from that book.
I will not to reveal too much from the book, as I feel it would be beneficial for all prolife advocates to buy the book and read it. It is unfortunately out-of-print, but you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy on Amazon.
In his book, Nathanson talks quite graphically about the abortion procedures that are done on pregnant women and about the state of abortion in the days before it was a legal procedure. He began to question abortion laws out of a genuine desire to help women.
Nathanson was trained at the McGill University medical college, but he would talk about the “hacks” who would botch abortions, and then Nathanson would have to, essentially, “clean up the mess.” He first tried to help by finding reputable doctors to send these women to. But later at a dinner party in July of 1969, he learned of plans to challenge the New York state abortion laws. Upset over the dangerous state of illegal abortions in New York, he willingly agreed to participate in abolishing all restrictions on abortion.
In the fourth chapter of his book, Nathanson talks about some of the tactics that the pro-abortion movement was utilizing. At this point, I want to briefly mention that I don’t consider most pro-choice people pro-abortion. I realize there’s a difference. But this movement was truly pro-abortion, wanting to abolish all restrictions on abortion, restrictions that even the average pro-choice person would not support.
One of these tactics was marrying the movement to hard-nosed feminism. Nathanson thought this was a mistake at first, thinking that the abortion-rights movement wouldn’t be taken seriously because of it, but he notes on page thirty-three that it was a “brilliant tactic.”
Another tactic he talks about was bringing out their favorite “whipping boy” (his words), the Catholic church. In the sixth chapter, Nathanson recounts a discussion he had with some members of NARAL (now in full swing), about bringing liberal Catholics into their ranks.
The reason that abortion is seen as a religious issue now is because part of the tactics to make abortion legal was about making this a “religious” issue, and since we hold “separation of church and state” in such high regard, that means that we could not reasonably keep abortion illegal.
In fact, on page 172, Nathanson wrote, “The pro-abortionists also seek to rule out discussion of abortion in advance because it is a ‘religious issue.’ Our movement persistently tarred all opposition with the brush of the Roman Catholic Church or its hierarchy, stirring up anti-Catholic prejudices , and pontificated about the necessity for ‘separation of church and state.’ As if we did not welcome the embrace of liberal Protestants and Jews! As if no organized religious group has ever intruded into public affairs before, including the crusades on women’s suffrage, civil rights, and Vietnam. (My former N.A.R.A.L. colleague Larry Lader is upset greatly by religious activity against abortion but was full of praise for church activism on the slavery issue in The Bold Brahmins, his book on the nineteenth century Abolitionists.)”
They also talked about keeping women out in front, especially black women, so that this issue can be seen as one that greatly affects women and minorities. The entire movement was carefully planned and choreographed, to give themselves the greatest possible chance of success.
Aside from these tactical moves, as well as rallying certain organizations behind them (e.g. NOW, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood), they were lobbying and holding demonstrations, basically getting the abortion issue in the public ear and trying to convince the public, and the legislators, that the laws restricting abortion need to go.
And in 1969, thanks to their efforts, New York started to legalize abortion. Not all at once, at first, but gradually. And finally, in 1973, they saw abortion legalized across the board with the Roe v. Wade decision, and her sister case, Doe v. Bolton.
So what was it that caused Dr. Nathanson to have a change of heart? He doesn’t really go into detail in his book. He mentions in chapter 16 that he started to have his doubts with the new information coming in, but even though he argued that they needed to treat abortions with greater gravity, he still argued that they should do abortions (although he had stopped doing abortions, himself). This attitude still caused him to be considered a pariah, a turncoat, amongst his pro-abortion peers (those are Nathanson’s words).
Aborting America was written not just to chronicle his falling out with the pro-abortion movement, but also to bring to light the dishonest maneuvers in the movement. For example, on page 193 of his book, he talks about the grossly inflated numbers dealing with abortion-related deaths: “How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL, we generally emphasized the frame of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year. I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the morality of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the [anti-abortion] laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.”
Like many people in the movement who have become pro-life, what caused him to make the final leap was ultrasound technology. According to Nathanson, viewing images from the new ultrasound technology in the 1970s convinced him of the humanity of the unborn baby (cited here: http:// www.ncregister.com/daily-news/bernardnathanson-dead-at-84/).
He wrote a book in 1994 called The Hand of God, in which he chronicles his conversion more fully. I have not read this book, but if you would like a fuller treatment of this issue, I would recommend both Aborting America and The Hand of God.
Ultrasound technology has been remarkably useful for many reasons, including being able to determine problems with the unborn child and help correct those problems. It also has a more sinister use, in aiding the abortion procedure (though it’s still a largely blind procedure).
Many pro-life advocates, including Dr. Nathanson and former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson, actually saw, with their own eyes, the humanity of the unborn child for the first time and realize what an evil and barbaric practice abortion is. The aforementioned video that Dr. Nathanson narrated, The Silent Scream, shows an abortion procedure on an ultrasound. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Doctor Nathanson helped “usher in this barbaric age,” as he mentions in his book The Hand of God (source: http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Bernard_Nathanson). But once he realized what an abominable practice it was, he couldn’t in good conscience perform them anymore, and some time later became an outspoken advocate for the unborn.
Now that Dr. Nathanson is no longer with us, he has left us a legacy of standing up for the unborn as they are barbarically killed in abortion facilities. Now it’s up to us to do away with the legality of the practice that allows the slaughter of our innocent young.
Clinton Wilcox is a professional musician and blogger from Fresno, CA. He is a regular contributor to the Secular Pro-Life blog, and has had articles featured on LifeNews.com and the National Right to Life Committee blog. He is a speaker and mentor in Right to Life of Central California’s Justice for All program. He has spoken to many pro-life and pro-choice people, on several college campuses across three states, and has given presentations on podcasts and in front of churches and philosophy clubs. Clinton runs a personal blog at prolifephilosophy.blogspot.com
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