Bernard Nathanson

Bernard Nathanson, a leading abortionist in the 1970s and later a convert to the pro-life cause, has passed away at the age of 84 following a long battle with cancer.

Nathanson was born in New York City and graduated from the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal in 1949.

As a member of the 12-person Planning Committee created by the First National Conference on Abortion Laws in Chicago in 1969, Nathanson was a co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (later the National Abortion Rights Action League). From 1970 to 1972, he was also director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, a New York abortuary that is the largest in the western world, where he was personally responsible for 75,000 abortions and committed 5,000 abortions himself.

Among those he aborted was his own unborn child. As he retold in his 1996 autobiography The Hand of God, in the 1960s he “impregnated a woman … and I not only demanded that she terminate the pregnancy… but also cooly informed her that since I was one of the most skilled practitioners of the art, I myself would do the abortion. And I did.”

In 1973 he became the head of obstetrics at St. Luke’s Women’s Hospital in New York and was exposed to the use of new ultrasound technology. For the first time, he was forced to see the humanity of the child in the womb. He continued doing abortions until 1979, but shortly after carrying out his final abortion procedure, he released his first book, Aborting America, and became one of the leading opponents of the abortion rights movement he helped create.

In Aborting America: A Doctor’s Personal Report on the Agonizing Issue of Abortion, Nathanson exposed the dishonest arguments and tactics of his former colleagues in the abortion industry. He noted that in the 1960s and ‘70s, advocates of abortion inflated the number of deaths from illegal abortions as well as the number of illegal abortions committed. He said that there were probably 100,000 so-called back alley abortions committed annually, although most of them were carried out in hospitals and covered up by fraudulently claiming other medical procedures. Yet, the abortionists who founded NARAL thought one million illegal abortions had a better ring to it and pushed that number which was dutifully reported by the media. Likewise, abortionists and feminists inflated the number of deaths from illegal abortions from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

All this was done to mislead the public about the demand for supposedly safe abortions. Nathansan stated in his essay, “Confession of an Ex-Abortionist,” “These false figures took root in the consciousness of Americans convincing many that we needed to crack the abortion law.”

Nathanson explained other tactics employed by abortionists. They convinced the media that the public wanted permissive abortion laws. He admitted, “Knowing that if a true poll were taken, we would be soundly defeated, we simply fabricated the results of fictional polls.” More importantly, abortionists needed to “play the Catholic card.” Nathanson stated: “we systematically vilified the Catholic Church  and its ‘socially backward ideas’ and picked  on the Catholic hierarchy as the villain in opposing abortion.”

Jim Hughes, president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim, that Henry Morgentaler and his allies in Canada employed the same tactics in Canada. Hughes said it was “comical” watching “Morgentaler put forward his ideas and his defense for the practice of abortion,” during a debate on Hamilton TV channel CHCH when Nathanson laughed and said, “I invented all those phrases. I invented those statistics.”

(Nathanson played an indirect role in the creation of The Interim. When CLC brought the former abortionist to Canada for a series of interviews and speeches, the media ignored his appearances and what he was saying. CLC created The Interim to provide extensive coverage of his appearances.)

Nathanson was an increasingly vocal critic of the abortion industry. In 1984, he wrote The Abortion Paper: Inside the Abortion Mentality which reiterated the revelations of Aborting America.

In 1985, he directed and narrated The Silent Scream, a documentary that shows an abortion “from the victim’s vantage point” through an ultrasound. The film shows an unborn child trying to escape the suction cannula seeking, in Nathanson’s words, to  “dismember, crush, and destroy” the fetus. It ends with the famous “silent scream” of the child being killed. It has become a favourite of pro-life activists to illustrate the humanity of the child in the womb. President Ronald Reagan asked for a preview screening of the film.

In 1987, Nathanson produced Eclipse of Reason, a film which shows a number of different abortion procedures including a second-trimester abortion and explores the moral implications of abortion. It featured an introduction by actor Charlton Heston.

The National Catholic Register said, “Both films had a significant impact on the abortion debate, solidified his credentials among pro-life advocates and earned him the scorn of his former pro-abortion friends and colleagues.”

In 1996, he released his autobiography, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed. He describes his conversion from abortionist to pro-life activist and atheistic Jew to practising Catholic. The late Fr. Paul Marx, former head of Human Life International, said The Hand of God reminded him of St. Augustine’s Confessions because it was “a brutally honest assessment” of a “remarkable doctor” and his central role in the abortion drama. In it, Nathanson describes how the peaceful pro-life witnessing of thousands of activists slowly opened his heart to reconsider his actions and worldview. And he describes how he was moved one time by a Catholic who held out his hand and offered him the peace of Christ. Nathanson said he expected pro-lifers to hate him, but instead they showed him love. In 1996, he was baptized into the Catholic faith by New York Cardinal John O’Connor.

While Nathanson eventually accepted a form of Christianity before becoming a Catholic, his conversion from abortion practitioner to pro-life advocate was, he always insisted, based on science and reason. His religious conversion came 16 years after he carried out his last abortion. He stated that while abortionists lied to the public about the unborn child being merely a blob of cells, he had also been lying to himself. The sonograms would wear on his conscience. After becoming pro-life, Nathanson did not mince his words: “permissive abortion is purposeful destruction of what is undeniably human life.”

In speeches and interviews he often said that “committing 75,000 abortions was was the greatest mistake of my life … and legal abortion was the greatest mistake this nation (the U.S.) has ever conceived.”

In a press release, National Right to Life Committee vice president for international affairs Jeanne Head said she knew Nathanson, initially as a foe, but eventually as a friend. “Dr. Nathanson was probably one of the individuals most responsible for Roe v. Wade,” said Head, “and, once he realized his error, he dedicated the rest of his life to reversing it,” Head said.

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, said in a statement following the news of Nathanson’s death: “I think thousands of pro-life people around the world will sorely miss this great man, his honesty, his tenacity and his unwavering commitment to truth.”

One of those people will be Jim Hughes. “I’ve known Bernie Nathanson for 30 years,” said Hughes.  “He was a true inspiration for all.” Hughes prays: “may the Good Lord accept his soul and say to him: ‘welcome good and faithful servant.’”

Nathanson is survived by his fourth wife, Christine, and son, Joseph from a previous marriage.

Bernard Nathanson