In 1974, a certain Dr. Bernard Nathanson wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Deeper into Abortion.” In this article, he articulated his growing doubts and fears about what he had been doing. He made the flat statement that he had presided over 60,000 abortions and set forth the following proposition:
“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 intrauterine life has been the subject of considerable dispute in the past.”
The response to that article, he was told by the NEJM, was the largest they had ever gotten. The article released an incredible store of emotion and the majority of the letters received were not fan letters.
Dr. Nathanson was born in the late nineteen twenties in New York City. He graduated in 1949 from the McGill University Medical School, Montreal, Canada. He went ahead to do his residency in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. In the late 1970s, he became pro-life. This made headlines and astonished both sides of the abortion debate. He would say in his autobiography titled The Hand of God:
“I know the abortion issue as no one else does. I know every facet of abortion. I was one of its accoucheurs; I helped nurture the creature in its infancy by feeding it great draughts of blood and money. I guided it through its adolescence as it grew fecklessly out of control. … I worked had to make abortion legal, affordable, and available on demand. In 1968, I was one of three founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). I ran the largest abortion clinic in the United States, and as its director I oversaw tens of thousands of abortions. I have performed thousands myself.”
He started by referring women who came to him for abortions to other physicians who were illegally carrying it out. He sent these women to Puerto Rico and later to Great Britain after that country developed a permissive abortion statute in 1968, with virtually no limit to the gestational age at which the British physician would terminate a pregnancy. Once, he paid a visit to London and watched a colleague dispose of thirty-two pregnancies (all over eighteen weeks) between nine in the morning and two in the afternoon. At approximately noon he had the nurse push up his mask and feed him a glass of orange juice through a straw, all the time chatting amiably about where the best shirt-makers were to be found in London.
Dr. Nathanson was at that period wondering what could be done about the poverty-stricken victims of illegal abortions being ambulanced into their emergency rooms bleeding profusely, in a septic, in cardiac failure, or even dead on arrival. He was still wondering until he met Larry Lader, a crusading journalist and a man obsessed with abortion, and together with a few other people, they worked hard to ensure the legalisation of abortion in the United States. They struck down every existing abortion statute and substituted abortion on demand. This was achieved within 18 months, taking advantage of the political and social circumstances of the time (the effects of the assassinations of J. F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr., the slow descent into the Vietnam dilemma, and the coming of age of the baby boomer generation).
In 1972, he moved to St. Luke’s Hospital to become the Chief of Obstetric Services. Within that period ultrasound was introduced in the hospital and this opened a new window into the world of the womb. For the first time they could really see the human foetus, measure it, observe it, watch it and, indeed bond with it and love it. He began to think about what he really had been doing and was still doing:
“I continued to do abortions through 1976. I was doing abortions and delivering babies, but increasingly I found the moral tension building and becoming intolerable. On one floor of the hospital we would be delivering babies and on another floor doing abortions. Because Roe vs. Wade did not set any restrictions, we could do abortions into the ninth month, before the first labour pain. [Roe vs. Wade is the case in 1973, in which the Supreme Court decided to allow legal abortions on demand in all states of the United States]. I would be up on one floor, putting the hypertonic saline into a woman twenty-three weeks pregnant, and on another floor, I would have someone in labour at twenty-three weeks, and I would be trying to salvage this baby.”
From abortion on demand, he restricted his practice to those he judged to have a compelling reason, i.e. cases of rape, incest or medical reasons. He did his last abortion in 1979, after coming to the conclusion that there was no reason for an abortion at anytime. He concluded that the person in the womb (from fertilization) is a living being, and we could not continue to wage war against the most defenceless of human beings. He became actively pro-life but did not have any religious affiliations; he was then a Jewish atheist. However, he became a Catholic Christian in 1996.
In 1985, he made a 28 minutes film called The Silent Scream, in which he described the stages of foetal development and offered a commentary as a sonogram showed in graphic detail, the abortion of a 12-week-old foetus. “We see the child’s mouth open in a silent scream,” he said. “This is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.” The film won the enthusiastic praise of President Ronald Reagan, who showed it in the White House.
Dr. B. N. Nathanson died of cancer at his home in Manhattan on Monday, 21 February, 2011. He was 84