The Interim‘s very first cover story back in March 1983. And deservedly so. Previously the director of the Western world’s largest abortion site and co-founder of the National Association to Repeal the Abortion Laws – sort of a Henry Morgentaler writ even larger – Nathanson stunned both sides of the debate when he converted to the pro-life side in the late 1970s. He then became an ardent and compelling proponent for the right to life of the unborn.
With the 40th anniversary of legalized abortion in Canada coming this May, The Interim thought it was an opportune time to speak to someone who was there at the beginning and could trace the development of the abortion movement till this point in time, concluding with a look at the implications of Barack Obama’s presidency.
An audio version of this interview can be heard online at the audio archive site of Radio Maria: www.hmwn.net/audioarchive. In the media player, select the “Culture Watch” program and then the episode, “Dr. Bernard Nathanson.”
The Interim: I wanted to ask you about the arguments the abortion movement first put forth, especially in terms of abortion deaths among women through illegal abortions and how disingenuous they may have been … Was there a lot of factual basis to the claims the abortion movement was making early on?
: As you know, I was on the other side for 10 years, from 1969 to 1979. I was medical chairman of NARAL, which was the National Association to Repeal the Abortion Laws. We had a statistician who was very pro-abortion. He was a bio-statistician. His name was Christopher Tietze. He fed us statistics that seemed outlandish at the time and were subsequently proven to be pumped up. His statistics were that there were 5,000-10,000 deaths per year in the U.S. from botched or illegal abortions and that there were approximately one million abortions done each year illegally in the U.S. This was all before Roe v. Wade.
The actual figure, in the 1960s before Roe v. Wade, was approximately 200-300 deaths per year from illegal abortions and about 200,000 illegal abortions done annually in the United States. So you can see the figures we used to politicize the argument were pumped up, inflated and totally incorrect.
The Interim: How did the media accept these claims? Did they question them? Were they critical in any way or were they reported as fact?
Nathanson: The media gave a pass to the pro-abortion people as they’ve frequently done with liberal causes. They swallowed the statistics we fed them wholesale and they never bothered to make any further inquiries.
The Interim: Since the early days, the abortion movement has really jumped on that word “choice” a lot … Do you have any thoughts on that mantra and how valid it is?
Nathanson: I was one of the people who made up or formulated that word, “choice,” in the context in which it is used now. I am a bioethicist by training; I have a graduate degree in bioethics. If you break down the argument about choice, you find that any choice which involves as one alternative violence – and deadly violence – is not an ethical choice at all. So when one is making the choice of keeping a baby or having it terminated, that choice is not a reasonable one and not an acceptable one. You cannot postulate an ethical choice that itself involves deadly violence.
The Interim: In terms of your own change of heart, can you tell us a little about what prompted that?
Nathanson: It was a strictly scientific excursion into intra-uterine life, which persuaded me that abortion was unacceptable. I started changing my mind in 1973, when advanced technology moved into our hospitals and offices. I speak now of ultrasound imaging, fetal heart monitoring electronically, hysteroscopy, fetoscopy – things that gave us a window into the womb. Over a period of three or four years, I mulled over these technologies and what they revealed … They opened a window into the womb so we could look in it, see the unborn baby and measure it and observe it sleeping, swallowing, urinating and all the things we all do as members of the (human) community. I was finally persuaded that the fetus is a member of the human community, has to be regarded as such and has to be protected as such.
The Interim: In terms of your faith journey, you became a Catholic and wrote a book on that experience, The Hand of God … The mainstream media image of pro-life and religious people is of people very judgemental and perhaps angry – they stand outside abortion sites and shout at women going in. Was that your experience or what did you find about people of faith and pro-life people?
Nathanson: I researched and wrote an article on Operation Rescue … I concluded it was not domestic terrorism, as the media had it, but rather intervention in the matter of saving lives. The people who sat in front of abortion (sites) – and I observed several of these rescues – were well-behaved and religious, but not in an intrusive or aggressive way. They were simply Gandhi-like – non-violent resistance. It was a very, very impressive thing to see. Unfortunately, the federal courts in the United States killed that movement with excessive fines and fascistic tactics.
The Interim: What was your experience of pro-life people – were they condemnatory toward you or otherwise?
Nathanson: When I was on the other side, operating the largest abortion (facility) in the Western world, we had pro-life demonstrators outside … But they were not intrusive or aggressive. They did not throw rocks at our windows, scream or carry bloody signs. They were generally well-behaved and intent only on rescuing babies from the grip of the abortionists.
The Interim: Once you changed your view, how were you received?
Nathanson: Suspiciously, at first. Pro-life people regarded me with a certain curiosity. But after awhile, when it became clear my change of mind was definitive and unrelenting, they welcomed me into the embrace of the pro-life movement and put me on the speaking circuit. I remained on that speaking circuit for about 20 years. I don’t do it anymore owing to poor health. But from 1980 to 2000, I was active in pro-life ventures.
The Interim: Things are looking particularly concerning with the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. What is your assessment of the situation now and what the pro-life movement can do in light of a very pro-abortion president taking office?
Nathanson: It’s not the president, but the Congress that will be asked to vote on the Freedom of Choice Act, which is essentially a clean bill of health and blank cheque for the abortion movement. The Freedom of Choice Act … will be a body blow to the pro-life movement. With the congressional majority being so overwhelmingly Democratic, it will probably pass, as I say, and there’s little we can do as pro-lifers except protest peacefully.
The Interim: In light of that, would it take a grassroots effort to change the culture … Are there other measure we could take to address the situation?
Nathanson: Politics is, of course, the first thing to do. Interestingly, the subject of abortion came up very infrequently during the (election) campaign. We know Obama is pro-abortion, but the abortion issue was never debated in the entire presidential campaign. McCain hardly ever mentioned it and Obama steered clear of it … The country is equally divided – 47 per cent pro-life, 47 per cent pro-abortion. What we have to do is be politically active and seize the opportunity to elect pro-life legislators and executives. I think we can do that, given patience and time.
Don’t forget, we have progressed from approximately a 25 per cent chunk of the electorate to 47 per cent in a mere 20 years or so. I think we can do it, but as I say, it will take time.