Dr. Bernard Nathanson died last week at the age of 84. He is being remembered by many of his pro-life friends as someone who made a profound difference because he never stopped growing intellectually and spiritually. He came to a position of prominence within the pro-life ranks by a rather circuitous route.
In the New England Journal of Medicine in 1974, Nathanson confessed his misgivings about abortion, writing,
Some time ago—after a tenure of a year and a half—I resigned as director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health. The Center had performed 60,000 abortions with no maternal deaths—an outstanding record of which we are proud. However, I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.
There is no longer serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy, despite the fact that the nature of the intrauterine life has been the subject of considerable dispute in the past. … Our capacity to measure signs of life is daily becoming more sophisticated, and as time goes by, we will doubtless be able to isolate life signs at earlier and earlier stages in fetal development.
He closed that article with these words: “We must work together to create a moral climate rich enough to provide for abortion, but sensitive enough to life to accommodate a profound sense of loss.”
Five years later, in 1979, Nathanson performed his last abortion and during that same year wrote his first book, Aborting America. He wrote that at one point in 1969, while studying for his medical degree at McGill University in Canada, his girlfriend became pregnant. Nathanson sent her for an abortion.
Sadly, after Nathanson moved to New York he got another girlfriend pregnant—but this time he aborted his child himself. It is said he presided over 75,000 abortions.
As he would tell hundreds of thousands in audiences across the globe after his conversion from support for abortion to advocate for life, what changed his mind about abortion was the absolute certainty that indeed abortion killed a human being. His honesty in a matter as grave as realizing that he had indeed stood by and witnessed so many killings had to have weighed heavily on his heart. Nathanson responded to his pain with an ever-growing zeal for truth and babies. His heartfelt sorrow turned into a remarkable testimony of God’s goodness.
In 1984, Nathanson completed production of his well-known Silent Scream video and President Ronald Reagan, who referred to abortion as a “wound in our national conscience” could not wait to see it. Reagan previewed the video in the White House, and the rest is history.
The Silent Scream provided a technological way of witnessing the suffering of the preborn child and the reality of what abortion does to a human being waiting to be born. Nathanson’s conversion was in high gear.
During the late 1980s, Nathanson and I were having lunch. Preparing to pay the bill, he took several credit cards held together with a rubber band out of his pocket. On top was a small, black crucifix. He then told me the story behind that crucifix. During one of his talks he had encountered a group of nuns in the audience and, after his speech, one of the nuns walked up to him, handed him that very crucifix, and said, “Dr. Nathanson, we are praying for you. You are a great man and you should be a Catholic.” He smiled when he told me this story; in 1996 he was baptized into the Catholic Church.
Nathanson gave of himself until his last breath; he never stopped defending the defenseless. His godmother, Joan Andrews Bell said upon his passing, “He 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. Dr. Nathanson was like that after his conversion. He went all around the world talking about the babies and the evils of abortion.”
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.