He was described as “a towering figure in the history of the United States”. That is, as they might say in the United States, an “awesome” accolade. Who was he? He was Dr. Bernard Nathanson. The words were those of Fr. Gerald Murray, in his homily at the Requiem Mass for Dr. Nathanson in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City. He died last month.
The twentieth century has any number of truly “Pauline” conversions, but very few match the scale of Bernard Nathanson’s. He was born in New York to Jewish parents. He became a doctor – like his father – and specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology and was for a time the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), at that time the biggest abortion provider in the world. During his career there and elsewhere he claimed that he was responsible for more than 75,000 abortions.
Throughout these years he was one of the leading activists in the pro-abortion campaign which eventually came to a head with the US Supreme Court judgement in the Roe V Wade case which legalised abortion across the country and gave the lead to so many other western states to do the same. He professed himself to be a Jewish atheist, was married four times and admitted in one of his books to taking the life of his own child in one of the abortions he carried out.
But then in the 1970s, with the development of ultrasound, he was able to observe a real-time abortion. This shocked him to the core of his being and he ceased to perform any more abortions. This was his first conversion, his ethical conversion. He continued to be an atheist. In his 1996 autobiography, Hand of God, which was quoted by Fr. Murray, he tells of the experience. He wrote: “Ultrasound opened up a new world. For the first time we could really see the human foetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it. I began to do that.”
Dr. Nathanson wrote: “By 1984 … I had begun to ask myself more questions about abortion: What actually goes on in an abortion? …I said to a friend of mine, who was doing fifteen or maybe twenty abortions a day, ‘Look, do me a favour, Jay. Next Saturday, when you are doing all these abortions, put an ultrasound device on the mother and tape it for me.’ He did, and when he looked at the tapes with me in an editing studio, he was so affected that he never did another abortion. I, though I had not done an abortion in five years, was shaken to the very roots of my soul by what I saw.”
He continued “Having looked at the ultrasound, I could no longer go on as before”. For him the abortion movement was then seen as “the most atrocious holocaust in the history of the United States”. From then on he became the implacable foe of the movement he himself had spent his life up until that time promoting. Consequently he became its number one source of embarrassment by exposing what he called “the dishonest beginnings of the abortion movement”. He was now declaring: “After my exposure to ultrasound, I began to rethink the prenatal phase of life… When I began to study foetology, it dawned on me, finally, that the prenatal nine months are just another band in the spectrum of life… To disrupt or abort a life at this point is intolerable – it is a crime. I don’t make any bones about using that word: Abortion is a crime.” He humbly confessed “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age.”
In 1984, he directed and narrated the pro-life film which galvanised anti-abortion forces across the globe. This film, The Silent Scream opened people’s eyes to the reality of the “procedure”. It removed any doubt that what was in fact being “terminated” was not just the clinical condition of pregnancy but a human being’s life. His second documentary, Eclipse of Reason, dealt with horror of late-term abortions.
One of the battles which Nathanson and others now began to fight was the battle against the corruption of language, meaning and truth which was part and parcel of the pro-abortionists’ campaign in their efforts to win over and consolidate public opinion on their side. Fr. William Smith, one of his companions in the struggle was another great hero of the pro-life movement. His axiom was: “Social engineering is always preceded by verbal engineering.” For them abortion was the killing of new life and had to be called that.
Then in 1996 came his second conversion. Some time before that he met an Opus Dei priest, Fr. C. John McCloskey. Already deeply troubled by the memories of the work he had been doing for so many years he was searching for some kind of peace – and could not find it. He had, however, the example of one man whose memory haunted him. His medical school professor had been Karl Stern, also Jewish, but a convert. He wrote of Stern later: “…he possessed a secret I had been searching for all my life – the secret of the peace of Christ”. With the help of Fr. McCloskey’s spiritual guidance he arrived at the moment of truth and grace.
In December 1996, Nathanson was baptized by Cardinal John O’Connor in a private Mass with a group of friends in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He also received Confirmation and first Communion from the Cardinal. When asked why he converted to Roman Catholicism, Nathanson affirmed simply that “no religion matches the special role for forgiveness that is afforded by the Catholic Church”.
In his homily Fr. Murray described Dr. Nathanson as “a fearless advocate of the self-evident truth that it is a grave injustice to kill people before they are born. The unjust decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton mandating legalized abortion in our country cry out for the counter-witness of those who will not abide this injustice. Heroism is called for. True heroism is never easy and is only possible through God‟s grace.”
Dr. Nathanson reminded Fr. Murray of another great champion of truth and a witness against evil in the twentieth century, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers renounced his membership of the Communist and confessed to being a Soviet spy. He suffered for it, he was vilified, but he stood firm. He spoke the truth. Chambers wrote of himself in the foreword to his famous book, Witness: “I do not know any way to explain why God’s grace touches a man who seems unworthy of it. But neither do I know any other way to explain how a man like myself – tarnished by life, unprepossessing, not brave – could prevail so far against the powers of the world arrayed almost solidly against him, to destroy him and defeat his truth. In this sense, I am an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying power of faith.”
Fr. Murray went on to tell a haunting story in Chambers’ book which he connected to Dr. Nathanson’s rejection of abortion. Chambers wrote: “The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. ‘He was immensely pro-Soviet’, she said, ‘and then –you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then, one night, in Moscow he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams’.
“A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind’s. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.
“The scream Dr. Nathanson heard was a silent scream. A silent scream uttered by an unseen victim; that is, until the ultrasound machine brought the truth of abortion into plain view for this medical doctor who had expended great effort to make this horror legal and widespread in America. That doctor thereafter boldly decided to make the reality of human life in the womb visible for the whole world to see.”