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HomeFeaturesMission aborted: The conversion of ex-abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson

Mission aborted: The conversion of ex-abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson

The pro-life movement is rife with stories of former pro-abortion advocates who had a change of heart and became pro-life champions. Perhaps the best known of these stories is that of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who witnessed an abortion being performed and could no longer deny the humanity of the child in the womb.

However, there is a lesser-known champion — perhaps by design — who experienced a profound conversion later in life and became a staunch witness for the unborn. What makes his story so remarkable, and indeed, transformative, is that he was one of the doctors who was a key influence on the Roe v. Wade decision 50 years ago.

“I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age.” wrote Dr. Bernard Nathanson in his 1996 autobiography, The Hand of God. Dr. Nathanson co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in 1970, thus marking what could be considered the beginning of the “barbaric age” he spoke of. NARAL, now called NARAL Pro-Choice America, still exists as a major pro-abortion player today, and continues to advocate for and advance complete and unfettered access to abortion for women.

By all accounts, Dr. Nathanson’s name would not have been lost to the annals of history nor forgotten by the mass media had he not undergone such a profound conversion. Indeed, as a young doctor, his mission was perfectly in line with that of NARAL; he and his colleagues opened a facility in New York City to meet the growing demand for abortion after abortion laws in the state became more lax in 1970. It was a point of pride for the clinic that a woman could come to the clinic, get an abortion and recover in a process that took three hours.

All told, Dr. Nathanson admitted that he was personally responsible for 75,000 abortions, whether performed by his own hand, presided over or through instructing fellow practitioners in the grim art of performing them. However, one abortion in particular would haunt Dr. Nathanson for the entirety of his life: that of his own child. After getting a girlfriend pregnant while living in New York, he performed an abortion on her himself.

He described the act in his autobiography, which was merely one more cold, mechanical procedure among many for him. “What is it like to terminate the life of your own child? I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, my colleagues, casual acquaintances, even my teachers. There was never a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme self-confidence that I was doing a major service to those who sought me out. I swear to you that I had no feelings aside from the sense of accomplishment, the pride of expertise.”

In 1973, Dr. Nathanson and a growing contingent of pro-abortion doctors and medical professionals proved pivotal in convincing the Supreme Court to legalize abortion with the Roe v. Wade decision; the rest is history. Consider it a mercy of God that a small part of Dr. Nathanson’s conscience remained intact; for after the unspeakable acts he had performed and the critical role he played in allowing for the systematic dismantling of the sanctity of life, his conscience was ripped open, ironically, through the rather scientific advent of ultrasound technology.

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After the passage of Roe in 1973, Dr. Nathanson became director of obstetrics for a large hospital in New York. It was there that he witnessed what many sadly still choose to willfully deny today: the unmistakable form of a child on the ultrasound screen and the scientific mechanics of life that come with it — including the indelible image of an innocent person shrinking away from the cold, steel tools that are intended to destroy that most precious life.

“A favorite pro-abortion tactic is to insist that the definition of when life begins is impossible; that the question is a theological or moral or philosophical one, anything but a scientific one,” he wrote in The Hand of God. “Fetology makes it undeniably evident that life begins at conception and requires all the protection and safeguards that any of us enjoy.”

From that moment on, Dr. Nathanson’s mission changed; the entire trajectory of his life shifted from being a harbinger of death to a defender of innocence. He was outcast from medical circles, but this did not prevent his shining light into the dark truths behind the Roe decision. He admitted that he and other doctors manipulated the media by inflating the number of “back-alley abortions” performed and deaths resulting from them to make them seem far more dangerous than they were in reality to the public eye.

“Another myth we fed to the public through the media was that legalizing abortion would only mean that the abortions taking place illegally would then be done legally,” he wrote. “In fact, of course, abortion is now being used as a primary method of birth control in the U.S. and the annual number of abortions has increased by 1500% since legalization.”

Then there was the Catholic Church, which was (and still is) a clear and present opposition to the “abortion on-demand” mentality; as such, the Church had to become the villain in this story.

“We systematically vilified the Catholic Church and its ‘socially backward ideas’ and picked on the Catholic hierarchy as the villain in opposing abortion,” Dr. Nathanson revealed. “An inference of this tactic was that there were no non-Catholic groups opposing abortion. The fact that other Christian as well as non-Christian religions were (and still are) monolithically opposed to abortion was constantly suppressed, along with pro-life atheists’ opinions.”

Clearly, it worked. Even to this day, the Church is one of the only major institutions that stands firmly opposed to abortion, and as such, it is villiainized relentlessly under the guise of “reproductive freedom.”

This is not the end of Dr. Nathanson’s story, however. In fact, in a twist that only could have been orchestrated by the hand of God, the very institution that Dr. Nathanson helped to vilify became exactly what it is in actuality for the tormented doctor: a means of repentance and salvation in a life weighed down by the degrading effects of sin.

Although he continued to perform abortions until 1979 under the pretense of “medically justified reasons,” the seeds for Dr. Nathanson’s conversion were planted by that ultrasound image. Over the years, haunted by the weight of what he had done, Dr. Nathanson contemplated suicide. Adding to his anguish were several failed marriages and his failings as a father to his one son, born by a different woman than the one he’d performed an abortion on years earlier. The accuser prowled, and his soul was ripe for the taking.

It was outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 1989, while working on an article concerning the morality of clinic blockades, that Dr. Nathanson would experience the God of the universe through the joy of those Christian witnesses who prayed diligently for the unborn.

“They prayed for each other but never for themselves,” he wrote. “And I wondered: How can these people give of themselves for a constituency that is (and always will be) mute, invisible and unable to thank them? It was only then that I began seriously to question what indescribable Force generated them to this activity. Why, too, was I there? What had led me to this time and place? Was it the same Force that allowed them to sit serene and unafraid at the epicenter of legal, physical, ethical and moral chaos?”

The Lord began to tug at Dr. Nathanson’s heart, but, being the intellectual he was, his mind was not yet convinced. He took up reading the works of C.S. Lewis, Cardinal John Henry Newman, Blaise Pascal and others to more deeply understand the “how” and “why” of Christianity. He was helped by a few figures both living and dead along the way, including St. Luke and Karl Stern, whose book Pillar of Fire closely echoed that of his own journey to faith.

Then, in December of 1996, Dr. Nathanson was washed clean of his sin through the sacrament of baptism and was welcomed into the holy communion of the Catholic Church. “I will be free from sin,” he said in a 1996 interview with Crisis Magazine, just prior to his being receiving into the Church. “For the first time in my life, I will feel the shelter and warmth of faith.”

Dr. Nathanson’s godmother for baptism, Joan Andrews Bell, had served more than a year in jail for blocking entrances to abortion clinics. Speaking with the National Catholic Register after Dr. Nathanson’s death in February 2011, Bell said that he would be remembered as a “very strong advocate for the babies.” She also spoke of what she witnessed in Dr. Nathanson after he had come to know Christ.

“One factor stood out, knowing him over the years, and that was that he had a deep pain for what he had done in terms of abortion. I remember there were periods he was fasting; he underwent huge amounts of fasting to make up for it,” she said. “He was like St. Paul, who was a great persecutor of the Church, yet when he saw the light of Christ, he was perhaps the greatest apostle for the Gospel. Dr. Nathanson was like that after his conversion. He went all around the world talking about the babies and the evils of abortion.”

Three important truths can be gleaned from Dr. Nathanson’s tragic but ultimately triumphant story. First is that truth, when encountered, is both altering and absolute; and the truth about the intrinsic dignity of those most precious lives in the womb hasn’t changed in the 50 years since Roe and never will — no matter how much humans refuse to acknowledge it. Second, the silent and often scorned witness of those who faithfully pray for the unborn and offer compassion to the women who feel as though there is no other option is not a fruitless endeavor; indeed, that very witness was the impetus for Dr. Nathanson’s cosmic conversion.

And lastly but by no means the least, the mercy of God knows no bounds. Even a soul as scarred as Dr. Nathanson’s by the scourge of unspeakable sin is not exempt from the warm and reckless embrace of the God of the universe, whose grandiosity can be found in even the tiniest of things, such as the faint flutter of a heartbeat in a newly conceived child.

The courageous defense of life is a thankless task, one that’s met with what seems like an entire ocean of opposition. But as Dr. Nathanson shows, no matter how impossible the odds seem, there is always hope, and hope abundant. May the sorrow of abortion never be outweighed by the hope that is evident in stories like Dr. Nathanson’s, and may that hope continue to be a beacon of light in the courageous battle against Roe v. Wade and similar laws that seek to undermine the most basic and intrinsic right of humanity: the right to be born and to be loved.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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