February 24, 2011
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who passed away this week, several times in the course of my own pro-life witness. This prolific author and teacher was the highest profile convert to the pro-life cause.
He had been a co-founder with Lawrence Lader in New York of NARAL—originally the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. He was an OB/GYN who had, by his own admission, supervised some 75,000 abortions. In his later writings, he showed how intelligently he and Lawrence Lader strategized to overturn U.S. laws for the protection of the unborn child. Lader famously said: Abortion is central to everything in life and how we want to live it.
Pro-lifers who underestimate the hideous strength that comes from that determination will be unprepared for the furies that are unleashed against anyone who tries to prevent abortion-on-demand from being fully funded and included within ObamaCare.
In the late 1960s, Lader focused on the Catholic Bishops, not Catholics in general. As New Yorkers, Lawrence Lader and Bernard Nathanson knew that they could not stage an anti-Catholic campaign. There were too many Catholics in New York for that. They also knew that many lay Catholics groused about the Bishops, especially those who onsidered themselves liberal, sophisticated New Yorkers.
Being pro-abortion in those days was like reading your Sunday Times over a cuppa and your bagel with. Its what you did and who you were. Why, the Bishops had not even repudiated Pope Paul VIs 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, (Of Human Life). If you werent going to listen to your Bishops about contraception, you were far less likely to follow their guidance about abortion. Lader brilliantly exploited those fault lines, artfully blurring all distinctions between preventing the conception of a child and killing the child in utero.
When he first broke with Lader, NARAL, and the pro-abortion ranks in 1972, Bernard Nathanson took pains to emphasize that his newfound opposition to abortion was based on his medical and scientific discoveries alone. He continued to describe himself as a Jewish atheist. He did not want the secular media to dismiss him as a religious fanatic. Its interesting to note that for all his documented anti-Catholicism, the mainstream media never dismissed Lawrence Lader as an anti-religious fanatic.
In his 1979 book, Aborting America, Dr. Nathanson wrote of how seeing the unborn child on ultra-sound had changed his mind about abortion. The scientific reality was—for this brilliant thinker and writer—inescapable.
I first met Dr. Nathanson in the early 1980s when he addressed a Lutherans for Life national convention. He brought his beautiful wife, Christine, with him and she memorably related how she welled up with tears upon hearing us sing Beautiful Savior, a hymn she recalled from the Lutheran churches of her childhood. Still, Dr. Nathanson took pains to emphasize his reasons for now opposing the satanic world of abortion were non-religious.
In Kansas City in 1984, I again encountered Dr. Nathanson. This time, he was to present his compelling film, The Silent Scream. The convention of the National Right to Life Committee eagerly awaited this video. So many convention goers crowded into the room for the screening that organizers had to move the showing to a larger room. Dr. Nathanson asked me to help set up the TV monitor. We had to put the heavy television on stage on two chairs so that people in the back of the hall could see the grainy ultra-sound footage.
I told Dr. Nathanson I would have to stay up there to hold the monitor or it might pitch forward into the crowd of watchers below. My God, Bob, I hope not! He said it with such emphasis that I thought then he was not going to be able to maintain his Jewish atheist shtick much longer.
That film was later described by Planned Parenthood, the outfit that kills as many as 350,000 unborn children yearly, as the most powerful thing the right to life movement has put out. I thought, I hoped, that if we could only get everyone in America to watch this overwhelming film, we could put an end to abortion. I still believe that.
Dr. Nathanson later wrote, in his 1996 book The Hand of God, about the power that ultra-sound images have over us:
For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it. I began to do that.
It was in 1996 that I saw Dr. Nathanson for the last time. He spoke to a Capitol Hill meeting of pro-lifers. He was to speak to us about his recent conversion to Catholicism.
We were all interested to hear what he had to say, but before he could affirm his new faith, he wanted to confess to us his sins.
He described how he had performed an abortion on his girlfriend, killing his own child. He admitted driving the children of one of his wives into mental institutions. It was a heart-wrenching confession, painful to hear. Then, he recited the Apostles Creed and all present wept.
Except, perhaps, Professor Hadley Arkes. Hadley was viewing all this with evident emotion, but with a certain distance. Jim Jatras, a respected Hill staffer and noted Greek Orthodox believer, with a flowing beard, innocently asked Hadley if he, too, had not converted to Catholicism. Arching a bushy eyebrow, Hadley gave a shrug and said: Not yet.
Dr. Nathanson now goes to his Beautiful Savior, asking for His mercy. The power of love is what brought Bernard Nathanson around. It may yet bring around those professional killers, Warren Hern and LeRoy Carhart. That, and no violence on our part, is our best hope.