Few people, if any, did more than Bernard Nathanson to undermine the right to life of unborn children by turning abortion from an unspeakable crime into a constitutionally protected liberty. [And] someday, when our law is reformed to honor the dignity and protect the right to life of every member of the human family, including children in the womb, historians will observe that few people did more than Bernard Nathanson to achieve that reversal.
Dr. Nathanson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, had his first involvement with abortion arranging an illegal abortion for his girlfriend. Many years later, he [called it] his “introductory excursion into the satanic world of abortion.”
Nathanson became a nearly monomaniacal crusader for abortion. As Director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, he presided over more than 60,000 abortions and performed 5,000 himself [one of which included his own son or daughter inconveniently conceived out of wedlock].
In the mid-1960s, with the sexual revolution roaring ... Nathanson became a leader in the movement to overturn laws prohibiting abortion, co-founding the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Its goal was to remove the cultural stigma on abortion, eliminate all meaningful legal restraints on it, and make it as widely available as possible.
To achieve these goals, NARAL pursued 4 dubious and dishonest strategies.
1. They promoted abortion as a medical issue, not a moral one, persuading people that pregnancy is a natural and healthy condition if the mother wants her baby, and a disease if she does not... In Roe v. Wade,7 Supreme Court justices invalidated virtually all state laws protecting unborn children on the ground that abortion is a “private choice” to be made by women and their doctors.
2. Nathanson and his friends lied—relentlessly and spectacularly—about the number of women who died each year from illegal abortions by “back alley butchers,” [admittedly reporting a number more than ten times higher than true.] Nathanson and others insisted, laws against abortion do not save fetal lives; they only cost women’s lives.
3. They depicted opposition to abortion as a “religious dogma” and a violation of the separation of church and state. Their movement needed a large and potent enemy. So despite the undeniable historical fact that prohibitions of abortion were rooted in English common law [and Protestantism], Catholicism was portrayed as the [male-dominated], freedom-smothering oppressor.
4. They appealed to conservatives and liberals alike by promoting feticide as a way of fighting poverty. Why are so many people poor? It’s because they have more children than they [or the taxpayers] can afford to care for. What’s the solution? Abortion.
Within a year after Roe v. Wade, however, Nathanson began to have moral doubts about his cause. In a widely noticed 1974 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine, he revealed his growing doubts that abortion was merely the removal of an “undifferentiated mass of cells.” He confessed to an “increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.”
Over the next several years, while continuing to perform abortions for what he regarded as legitimate “health” reasons, Nathanson would be moved still further toward the pro-life position by the emergence of new technologies that made it increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, to deny that abortion is the deliberate killing of a unique human being—a child in the womb.
By 1980, the weight of evidence overwhelmed Nathanson and drove him out of the practice of abortion. He had come to regard the procedure as unjustified homicide and refused to perform it. Soon he was dedicating himself to the fight against abortion and revealing to the world the lies he and his abortion movement colleagues had told to break down public opposition.
In 1985, he produced a documentary film, “The Silent Scream,” showing in graphic detail the killing of a twelve-week-old fetus by a suction abortion. He used footage to describe the facts of fetal development and to make the case for the humanity and dignity of the child in the womb. At one point, viewers see the child draw back from the surgical instrument and open his mouth: “This,” Nathanson says in the narration, “is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.”
Nathanson was gradually drawn to faith in God by the moral witness of the believers among his newfound comrades in the struggle for the unborn. Drawn to Catholicism because of the Church’s witness, Nathanson was baptized in 1996 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He chose as his godmother Joan Andrews Bell, a woman revered among pro-lifers for her willingness to suffer more than a year of imprisonment for blockading abortion facilities. Reflecting on her godson’s conversion, she said that Nathanson 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.”
There are many lessons in Bernard Nathanson’s life. Two in particular stand out for me.
First is the luminous power of truth. The edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies. Nathanson told those lies; indeed, he helped to invent them. But others witnessed to truth. And when he was exposed to their bold, un-intimidated, self-sacrificial witness, the truth overcame the darkness in his heart and convicted him in the court of his own conscience.
Bernie and I became friends in the early 1990s, shortly after my own pro-life writings came to his attention. Once during the Q&A session following a speech he gave at Princeton, I asked him: “In promoting abortion, you were willing to lie for what you regarded as a good cause. Now that you have been converted to the cause of life, would you be willing to lie to save babies?” He seemed a bit stunned by it, and after a moment said, very quietly, “No, I wouldn’t lie, even to save babies.” He explained further: “You said that I was converted to the cause of life; and that’s true. But you must remember that I was converted to the cause of life only because I was converted to the cause of truth. That’s why I wouldn’t lie, even in a good cause.”
The second lesson is this: 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. Let us not lose faith in the power of our weapons to transform even the most resolute abortion advocates. The most dedicated abortion supporters are potential allies in the cause of life. It is the loving, prayerful, self-sacrificing witness of Joan Bell Andrews and so many other dedicated pro-life activists that softens the hearts and changes the lives of people like Dr. Bernard Nathanson.
An edited and abridged article by Robert P. George , McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. The full article may be found here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2806/ at Public Discourse.