Dr. Bernard Nathanson, RIP

By Dave Andrusko

“The pleasure that Dr. Nathanson’s transformation has brought to the right-to-life movement is exceeded only by the consternation it has caused his former pro-choice colleagues, most of whom are so appalled they refuse to discuss it publicly…”
     — Joe Klein, New York Magazine, January 7, 1985.

Thanks to the Internet, you likely already know the sad news that Dr. Bernard Nathanson died this morning after a long battle with cancer. Our prayers go out to his family and all those who were close to him.

It is almost impossible for someone who was not on the scene in the late 70s and early 80s to appreciate the impact of one of the key pro-abortion strategists seeing the light—actually seeing ultrasounds—coming over to the pro-life side. Consider that Nathanson was part of the original brain trust that created the first iteration of NARAL—then called the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), since twice rebranded and now known as Naral Pro-Choice America.

The Silent Scream VideoHe was there at the creation. To the great discomfort of his former colleagues, Nathanson knew all the secrets–all the twists and turns in devising a calculated and cynical strategy to grossly exaggerate (when they did not wholly fabricate) the number of abortions and deaths from abortion. In the process they played a ugly card–demonizing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church—which even by pro-abortion standards was beyond the pale.

Nathanson was not some bit player. In the early 1970s he was director of the largest abortion facility in the world, New York City’s Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health. He subsequently wrote that he was “personally responsible” for 75,000 abortions,  and performed about 5,000 abortions, including one on his girlfriend.

Few people realize that there is a history to his classic 1979 book, “Aborting America,” which was both an insider’s account of the creation of NARAL and a kind of  first draft of his autobiography. In late 1974 Nathanson wrote an article for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Deeper into Abortion” in which he voiced his growing skepticism.

Nathanson often attributed his turnabout to what he called the “explosion of  knowledge” about the unborn, particular ultrasound. On a 1990 television program, Nathanson put it this way:

“Ultrasound technology has been really the apparatus which has put the window in the womb. This was the first time we really could see the baby. Up till that time we never could. I mean, X-rays were static. You couldn’t really use X-rays to prove or disprove much of anything about the fetus. But ultrasound gives us these very clear, precise pictures, allows us to stimulate the child, see how it breathes, see how it moves, see how it swallows, see how it urinates, see how everything happens.
“Now, there’s been a new advance in this ultrasound technology which is known as transvaginal sonography. It’s very exciting. [Before] the pictures were great, but they don’t compare to these pictures—it’s valuable for very early pregnancies.

“We can see the gestational sac—the little sac of the pregnancy at two weeks following fertilization now with transvaginal sonography. [We] can see the heart beginning to beat at around 3 [to] 3-1/2 weeks now. So this has pushed back or updated a great many of our data about the unborn baby.

“And I don’t doubt that there are new technologies coming even now; for example, color ultrasound which is going to give us even clearer, more vivid pictures and increase our knowledge about the unborn patient here.”

Nor do most people know that  in 1979 Nathanson–possessed of a restless intellect–was still developing what would later become a full-orbed pro-life position. In that sense his journey was genuinely a pilgrim’s progress.

As a fellow New Yorker, Jeanne Head, NRLC Vice President for International Affairs and United Nations Representative, knew Dr. Nathanson first as a foe and then as a friend. “Dr. Nathanson  was probably one of the individuals most responsible for Roe v. Wade and, once he realized his error, he dedicated the rest of his life to reversing it,” Head said. She explained that she heard about  “Aborting America” when it was still in galley form and  may have been the first pro-lifer to speak to him after he had finished co-writing the book with Richard Ostling.

Then came 1984 when Dr. Nathanson unveiled “The Silent Scream,” a mesmerizingly powerful video which shows sonogram images of an unborn child frantically trying to avoid the abortionist’s instruments. Former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey, told Time magazine at the time the film represented “A high technology Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arousing public opinion just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel ignited the abolitionist movement.”

As is probably clear, Nathanson’s impact was cumulative. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of his book,  and “The Silent Scream,” and his later video, “Eclipse of Reason,” in driving home the sheer horror and brutality of abortion,” as Head explained

There is much more than could be said about Dr. Nathanson. Let me end with this from Lisa Akchin, who, in 1985, was a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, then as now the bane of pro-lifers. Talking about “The Silent Scream,” Akchin said ruefully, “There’s been  a lot of discussion and gnashing of teeth about how to deal with it.”

Please send your comments to daveandrusko@gmail.com.

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