The abortion doctor and St. Paul

Bernard Nathanson was a leading New York City abortion doctor who helped found NARAL. Originally that stood for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. It was later renamed the National Abortion Rights Action League. Now it's known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. Nathanson worked with abortion rights pioneers for the legalization of abortion in the United States, a goal they accomplished with the Supreme Court's Roe V. Wade decision. Nathanson reports that he was personally responsible for some 75,000 abortions. He performed one of these on his own unborn child. Previously he'd paid for another girlfriend to have an abortion. But when he viewed images from the new ultrasound and fetal monitoring technology of the 1970s, he had an enormous change of heart and was convinced him of the humanity of the unborn child. Eventually he became a pro-life activist, making the documentary The Silent Scream (a rough copy embedded here). The film, which showed the abortion of a 12-week-old fetus, was revolutionary for the pro-life movement. Young people born after that film probably aren't aware of how it changed the terms of the debate (a topic I thought of when reading this pro-choice Washington Post op-ed this past weekend). Nathanson became a prominent writer and speaker for the pro-life movement. His own conversion to the pro-life movement presaged what happened with wider public opinion in coming decades, and the role of technology certainly was significant to both.

Nathanson died at the age of 84 at his home in New York Feb. 21 after a lengthy battle with cancer. It looks like most coverage of Nathanson's death was found in Catholic and pro-life media. But there were a few major media mentions as well. The Associated Press obituary is short but it does include a brief mention of an interesting religion angle, which is that Nathanson converted to Catholicism in the late 1990s and was baptized by Cardinal John J. O'Connor in a private ceremony:

The New York Times lives up to its reputation as a publisher of substantive and worthwhile obits. It includes interesting quotes such as these:

"The Silent Scream," a 28-minute film produced by Crusade for Life, was released in early 1985. In it, Dr. Nathanson described the stages of fetal development and offered commentary as a sonogram showed, in graphic detail, the abortion of a 12-week-old fetus by the suction method.

"We see the child's mouth open in a silent scream," he said, as the ultrasound image, slowed for dramatic impact, showed a fetus seeming to shrink from surgical instruments. "This is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction." ...

"I know every facet of abortion," he wrote in his memoir, adding, "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."

The article includes the responses of some of his critics, too. But there's not much more information about his conversion, other than to add that the baptism took place in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

For an obit that significantly weaves religion into the larger story, you should read the Wall Street Journal's. Early on it notes that Nathanson was a self-professed "Jewish atheist" who became convinced by ultrasound and EKG imagery about the humanity of the unborn child. Later we read:

The film became a favorite in the Right-to-Life movement, much of which had based its arguments on religion. New York Archbishop John J. O'Connor hailed "The Silent Scream," and pointed out that Dr. Nathanson "actually admits that he's an atheist."

Joan Andrews Bell, a Catholic anti-abortion activist who has served time in prison for blocking access to clinics, said, "He knew what the other side was thinking, but he also humanized the other side for us."

A couple of things. I probably became aware of abortion, and the larger battle over its morality, around the time "The Silent Scream" came out. Is it true that much of the pro-life movement wasn't just religious but had made its arguments based on religion prior to that? Perhaps some readers might be able to point to something to clarify that. The other thing is that while it's great to mention Joan Andrews Bell, it seems worthwhile to also note that she was Nathanson's godmother (which I learned from this National Catholic Register obit).

Here's the end of the piece (which also mentions that while Nathanson went to Hebrew school, his family was secular):

In 1996, he was baptized a Catholic at St. Patrick's Cathedral by Cardinal O'Connor. "I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world," he told the Washington Times that year.

Not a bad kicker for an obit. But I think that the quote actually came from religion reporter Julia Duin's excellent piece in the June 1996 issue of Crisis magazine about his upcoming baptism. Here's the full quote referenced above:

"I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent," he writes. "I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world that failing to believe would condemn me to an eternity perhaps more terrifying than anything Dante envisioned in his celebration of the redemptive fall and rise of Easter. I am afraid."

The Crisis piece is full of interesting quotes and much in-depth discussion of religious themes. Duin spoke to Nathanson again after the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. In that National Catholic Register piece I mentioned above, Bell emphasized the deep fain he had for what he'd done earlier in his life. She describes the periods of fasting he underwent and compares his conversion to St. Paul's.

I never would have thought, when I first learned of Nathanson and his work, that his obituary would include so much discussion of religion. But you can really see how the ones that did get the religious themes also did a better job of discussing his life. And hopefully we'll see much more coverage of this seminal figure to both the pro-choice and pro-life movements.

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