Dr Bernard Nathanson: abortion activist and historian

Nathanson literally co-founded the drive for legal abortion in America, ran the world's largest abortion clinic in New York, presided over and performed many thousands of abortions.
  • He is the only prominent American abortionist to have written on the issue for the general public.
  • Bernard Nathanson turned against abortion out of scientific conviction in the late 1970s.
  • Highly qualified and experienced, he continued to study and comment on emerging bioethical and life issues.
  • Nathanson decided to utilise his first-hand clinical experience for an in-depth examination of all the pros and cons.
  • I thought the abortions were right at the time, revolutionary ethics are often unrecognisable at some future, more serene date.
Dr Bernard Nathanson: abortion activist and historian Bernard Nathanson is perhaps the most experienced and knowledgeable figure in the modern history of abortion. He literally co-founded the drive for legal abortion in America, ran the world's largest abortion clinic in New York, presided over and performed many thousands of abortions - and then gradually changed his views.

In November 1974, Nathanson published an article entitled "Deeper into Abortion", in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. It caused a sensation among the medical profession, and anti-and pro-abortionists.

There are a number of prominent American abortionists, most of them close to retirement. They are known for their chain of clinics and for lectures and papers on abortion techniques in medical journals. Unlike Dr Nathanson, they remain relatively unknown outside the abortion industry. He is the only one to have written on the issue for the general public.

Bernard Nathanson turned against abortion out of scientific conviction in the late 1970s.
Bernard Nathanson turned against abortion out of scientific conviction in the late 1970s, and by 1979 had written "Aborting America", part-autobiography and an insider's social history of the abortion movement.

Understandably, Nathanson's defection to the anti-abortion movement made him something of a pariah and non-person. Yet he travelled widely and was in constant demand as a lecturer in anti-abortion circles. Highly qualified and experienced, he continued to study and comment on emerging bioethical and life issues.

In his second book "The Hand of God", written in 1996, Nathanson looked back at his formative years and the influences that led him to co-found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), the clinic years, and then into the anti-abortion movement. His personal journey is recounted with an unusual honesty and ironic humour. In 1996, the life-long Jewish atheist was received into the Catholic Church.

Early days
Nathanson's domineering father was a major influence. A successful obstetrician and gynaecologist, he insisted that young Bernard embark on a medical career. Proud of his Jewishness, but a committed atheist, he worked on his son: 

"My father undermined religiosity in me so continually and so artfully that I was left with nothing to believe in. Consequently, I am not only a convinced atheist, but have never been particularly interested in organised religion. It is fair to say that my opinions about abortion - or anything else - have never been influenced in the slightest by the empires of faith." (1979)

While a medical student, Nathanson discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant. His father paid for an abortion. They had planned to marry, but the abortion brought a slow end to their relationship.
In 1947, whilst a medical student at McGill in Montreal, Nathanson discovered that his girlfriend Ruth was pregnant. His father sent $500 to pay for an abortion, which was arranged in Montreal. They had planned to marry, but the abortion in deep and subtle ways brought a slow end to their relationship.

In 1955, Nathanson was enjoying his career as an intern at New York's Woman's Hospital and receiving an education in the realities of illegal abortion. There were two levels of patients, the regular flow of working class Black and Puerto Rican women who came in injured from back-street abortionists, or from self-induced abortions, and the relatively wealthy women who could afford private treatment from their own doctor. 

The poorer women would have their wombs cleaned out with a D and C (dilation and curretage) and be discharged 48 hours later. If they were unlucky, they died from respiratory obstruction or cardiac arrest. With continuous bleeding from a perforated uterus, a hysterectomy (removal uterus causing permanent sterility) was performed immediately. 

High fevers could last for weeks. Few antibiotics were then available and most had serious side-effects. Infections could be uncontrollable, leading to a hysterectomy. Internal gangrene often led to a slow, painful death.

As non-medical abortions were illegal, an elaborate charade was played out. The doctor would phone asking for his private patient to be admitted for a D and C, following her "incomplete" miscarriage.
As non-medical abortions were a criminal offence, an elaborate charade was played out to accommodate private patients and their personal doctors. The doctor would phone asking for his patient to be admitted for a D and C, following her "incomplete" miscarriage. Everybody knew the script. Nathanson was disdainful of the subterfuge involved, but years later in his own private practice came to understand the "immense emotional and financial pressures brought to bear upon the physician caught in the cruel dilemma of an unwillingly pregnant woman."

The germ of a humanitarian idea
"I suppose that in fury at my own impotence to aid my patients, and particularly in anger at the egregious inequity in the availability of abortions, the germination of an idea began: the need to change the laws. There seemed no time for the luxury of contemplating the theoretical morality of abortion, or the soundness of freedom of choice. Something simply had to be done."

"I began not with the laws, but with my own patients. If I refused to become one of those gynaecologists who participated in the Theatre of Abortion (the coaching of patients and preparation of a script to fake the necessity of a D and C), I resolved to help the pregnant women who turned to me. I had to have some place to send them."

Nathanson found a willing doctor in Puerto Rico, who was soon handling a fourth of all abortion referrals from gynaecologists in the northeast of the USA.
Nathanson found a willing doctor in Puerto Rico, who was soon handling a fourth of all abortion referrals from gynaecologists in the northeast of the USA.

Britain's pioneering 1967 Abortion Act attracted women from all over Europe and some wealthy patients from the USA. Nathanson used a London-based Dr David Sopher, who was considered an unusually skilful expert at late abortions from 14-26 weeks. His total operating time was three minutes, compared with the normal 30 minutes.

Meeting Lawrence Lader
On Friday, 2nd June, 1967, Nathanson and his wife Adelle, drove to a dinner engagement in New Jersey. Seated on his right was Lawrence Lader, who confided that he had just written a book entitled "Abortion". Nathanson was enthralled, he was angry at the health hazards that went with illegal abortion and the "iniquity and hypocrisy" in the abortion business. A member of the gynaecological Establishment, he was ready to break ranks with his colleagues.

Lader was then 47, born into wealth, a magazine writer interested in social causes. He was convinced that a dedicated and Bolshevik-like militant group was needed to fight for the total abolition of abortion restrictions. 

Like Vladimir Lenin, Lader was totally focused on bringing about a revolution.  Betty Friedan called him: "the father of abortion rights."
Like Vladimir Lenin, Lader was totally focused on bringing about a revolution. His conversation, thoughts and action were dedicated to the strategy required to achieve his goals. Betty Friedan called him: "the father of abortion rights."

"Lader and I were perfect for one another, " recalls Nathanson. We sat down and plotted out the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL)." 

They devised emotionally compelling slogans such as:

  • "Women must have control over their own bodies."
  • "Safe and legal abortion is every woman's right."
  • Who decides? You decide!"
  • "Freedom of choice - a basic American right."
"I remember laughing when we made those slogans up. We were looking for some sexy, catchy slogans to capture public opinion. They were very cynical slogans then, just as all those slogans are today."

Using the media
"Knowing that if a true poll was taken, we would be soundly defeated, we simply fabricated the results of fictional polls."
"We persuaded the media that the cause of permissive abortion was a liberal, enlightened, sophisticated one. Knowing that if a true poll was taken, we would be soundly defeated, we simply fabricated the results of fictional polls. We announced to the media that we had taken polls and the 60 percent of Americans were in favour of permissive abortion. This is the tactic of the self-fulfilling lie. Few people care to be in the minority."

"We aroused enough sympathy to sell our program of permissive abortion by fabricating the number of illegal abortions done annually in the United States.
Repeating the big lie often enough convinces the public. The number of women dying from illegal abortions was around 200-250 annually. The figure we constantly fed to the media was 10,000. Those false figures took root in the consciousness of Americans, convincing many that we needed to crack the abortion law."

"Another myth fed we to the public through the media, was that legalising abortion would only mean that the abortions taking place illegally, would then be done legally."
"Another myth fed we to the public through the media, was that legalising abortion would only mean that the abortions taking place illegally, would then be done legally. 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 1,500 percent (in 1979) since legalization."

A botched abortion, new strategy
In late 1968, Bernard Nathanson arranged a Puerto Rican abortion for a colleague. Within days of her return, she was hospitalised with major complications. It emerged that the usual abortionist had been away and the abortion was performed by another. Alice endured a total of nine operations and was rendered infertile.

Nathanson concluded that abortions needed to be done in New York, and the way forward was to undermine hospital Therapeutic Abortion Committees. These Committees were designed to establish if a medical abortion could be justified, and were generally scrupulous in their deliberations.

Nathanson perceived that the weak link was the psychiatrists. Discreet enquiries revealed that most were liberal on abortion rights and would be prepared to testify that the patient was "suicidal". "Once a breach was made in that area, once a few precedent-setting cases got by, then we could pour them through in unlimited numbers. The supposed threat of suicide was the logical battering ram."

By 1970, the Committees were aware of the growing abortion rights movement, the assertiveness of the psychiatrists, and the few cases approved became a flood.

Within two years, NARAL had achieved its first goal, abortion became legal in New York.

The world's largest abortion clinic
e did 120 abortions everyday in that clinic. At the end of the two years that I was the director, we had done 60,000 abortions.
"We were inundated with applicants for abortion from all over the eastern half of the United States. I set up a clinic, the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), which operated in the east side of the Manhattan. It had ten operating rooms, 35 doctors and 85 nurses. It operated seven days a week, from 8am to midnight. We did 120 abortions everyday in that clinic. At the end of the two years that I was the director, we had done 60,000 abortions. I myself, with my own hands, have done 5,000 abortions. I have supervised another 10,000 that residents have done under my direction. So I have 75,000 abortions in my life. Those are pretty good credentials to speak on the subject of abortion."

A revolution in abortion techniques
Bernard Nathanson's new clinic benefited from the revolution in abortion technology. Suction curettage made safe, cheap, large scale abortion possible at the time the laws were changing.

The technique was pioneered in China in 1958, spread to other communist nations, and was first used in Israel, Sweden and the US in 1967. Nathanson purchased the first suction machine in 1969, in anticipation of the New York abortion law being repealed.

Up to 1969, abortion was a cottage industry, performed by hand through D and C, scraping the wall of the womb with a sharp curette, and pulling out pieces with the polyp forceps.
Nathanson explained that up to 1969, abortion was a cottage industry, performed by hand through D and C, scraping the wall of the womb with a sharp curette, and pulling out pieces with the polyp forceps. A cautious doctor might spend thirty minutes or more, using a delicate touch because the wall of the uterus is soft during pregnancy.

With suction abortion, a plastic hollow tube (vacurette) is used, with the calibre varying to match the tightness of the cervix. A clear plastic tube leads from the vacurette to one empty bottle where the bodily remains are trapped in a gauze bag; the blood seeps into the bottle below. With the vacurette, the operator quickly pulls the conceptus from the wall of the uterus. If this is done after about ten weeks, one can see identifiable parts of the fetus's body dismembered and trapped in the gauze bag, which caused stony reaction from nurses in the early years.

The later one gets in the "first trimester" (the first twelve weeks) the more likely the suction must be alternated with the hand-operated forceps to dismember the fetal body in the womb and extract pieces, working blindly in that large, soft chamber. When everything is out, the uterus signals completion by contracting; the bleeding slows markedly.

Overwhelming reponse
Throughout 1970, hospitals and doctors surgeries in New York were overwhelmed with many thousands of women arriving from all over the eastern and southern parts of the United States. Nathanson carried out an exhausting schedule. The pressure slowly eased as more states widened the grounds for abortion.

Re-thinking on abortion
On August 26, 1972, Bernard Nathanson, exhausted with years of severe pressure resigned from the clinic. After an extended European holiday with his family, he devoted more time to his private practice, in which he continued to perform abortions.

In January 1973, he accepted an invitation to be Chief of Obstetrical Service at Women's Hospital in Manhattan. The next four years in that post were critical to his re-thinking about abortion.

Here is a summary of the main reasons for the change:
  • During the same years that mass abortion developed, there was an explosion of knowledge about the foetus (foetology and perinatology). Nathanson had been so caught up in the abortion revolution that he was oblivious to the new medical science.
  • Nathanson was greatly intrigued by the question posed in a French novel entitled "You Shall Know Them", translated into English. An anthropologist in Australia, discovers a missing link tribe in the jungle that displays both human and animal characteristics. The creatures are nicknamed "tropis" and a journalist on the expedition artificially impregnates a female tropi with his sperm, for a legal experiment. Back in England, he deliberately kills his offspring to force a murder trial, because several industrialists want to use tropis as slave labour. If they are not humans, what difference does it make?
  • At the murder trial, the journalists lawyer sums up: "It did not rest with the tropis to be, or not to be members of the human community, but with us to admit them to it. No one is a human being by right of nature but, on the contrary, before being recognised as such by his fellow man, he must have undergone an examination, an intiation."
  • To Nathanson, this went to the heart of the matter. He wrote: "Should not the foetus, too, be examined to determine whether it is a member of the human community? Or equally important, to determine whether it is not a member of the human community, and if not, why not?"

"Deeper into Abortion"
He was sure about two things: abortions had to be available without restriction, and that everyone should be counselled to think about abortion more carefully.
Through the summer of 1973, Nathanson formulated his thoughts on abortion. He was sure about two things: abortions had to be available without restriction, and that everyone should be counselled to think about abortion more carefully. He then submitted a manuscript to the New England Journal of Medicine. Entitled "Deeper into Abortion", it was published in the "Sounding Board" section on November 28th, 1974.

After establishing his credentials, Nathanson wrote that he was deeply troubled by "my own increasing certainty that I have presided over 60,000 deaths. 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 intrauterine life has been the subject of considerable dispute in the past."

The article caused a sensation in both sides of the abortion debate. When the dust settled, Nathanson decided to start over from the beginning and utilise his first-hand clinical experience for an in-depth examination of all the pros and cons.

"I now regret this loss of life. I thought the abortions were right at the time, revolutionary ethics are often unrecognisable at some future, more serene date.
He performed his last abortion in late 1978. At the end of his book "Aborting America", Nathanson reflects:
"There are 75,000 abortions in my past medical career, those performed under my administration, or that I supervised in a teaching capacity, and the 1,500 that I performed myself.

I now regret this loss of life. I thought the abortions were right at the time, revolutionary ethics are often unrecognisable at some future, more serene date. The errors of history are not recoverable, the lives cannot be retrieved. One can only pledge to adhere to an ethical course in the future."


The journey to 'anti-abortion' activism
While Nathanson had changed his mind about abortion it was a decision based solely on scientific evidence. As a Jewish atheist, he had not yet considered any spiritual reality.

But by 1993, Nathanson was divorcing his third wife and feelings of failure and depression were taking over. 

Nathanson says there was no escaping the interior dialogue that haunted and accused, then pointed out Albert Camus's central question of the twentieth century: Whether or not to commit suicide. A grandfather and sister had gone that route; his father had attempted to.

For a while, he tried therapy, self-help books, counseling, and spiritualities ranging from theosophy to Swedenborgianism while finding his Judaism inadequate at best. Except for his first marriage in a Jewish ceremony and getting his son bar mitzvahed, he had hardly functioned as a Jew after his midteens. Still he went to speak with two rabbis, one Orthodox and the other Conservative, about his doubts. 

"I was looking for a way to wash away my sins," he says. "There's no such formal mechanism for doing that in Judaism. One can atone for sins, as in Yom Kippur, but that doesn't absolve you. That's not to condemn the religion but I just didn't find in it what I needed." 

Nathanson felt he had to seek something that had the theological construct he needed to face his sin. Life's twilight was approaching and inexorable judgment looming, and the doctor was entranced by the idea of going round and round in one of Dante's seven circles of hell. 

"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." 

He began casting about for a system that provided space for guilt and could assure him "that someone died for my sins and my evil two millennia ago. 

"The New Testament God was a loving, forgiving, incomparably cossetting figure in whom I would seek, and ultimately find, the forgiveness I have pursued so hopelessly, for so long." He started talking to a priest, Father John McCloskey, and began reading St. Augustine's Confessions and other religious literature in hopes of finding relief from his depression.

His conversion was by now not 'if':It was 'when'. He plunged into Malcolm Muggeridge, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Karl Stern, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weill, Richard Gilman, Blaise Pascal, and Cardinal Newman, all of whom had taken the path he was considering.

Nathanson made the decision to join the Catholic Church and was baptised and confirmed by the late Cardinal John O'Connor, an ardent opponent to abortion, on Dec. 9, 1996.

Nathanson is a renowned speaker at "anti-abortion" conferences around the world and is very involved in actively working to end the legalisation of abortion. He is a regarded as an 'anti-abortion advocate' who has completely converted to the life position. He is also very interested in the human genome project which he also sees as having potentially enormous repercussions for mankind.

Because of his unique credibility and experience as the co-founder of the abortion-rights movement in America, Nathanson has been a renowned speaker at 'pro-life' conferences around the world. Now in his 80s, he is interested in the Human Genome Project, which he sees as having potentially enormous repercussions for mankind.

Bernard Nathanson's Commentary on the Holocaust and Abortion
From 1973 to 2005, an estimated 48 million plus abortions have been performed in the United States. Some anti-abortion commentators have used the term 'Holocaust' to describe the legal killing of the unborn on such a scale.

This appropriation of the Holocaust or Shoah has provoked outrage from many Jewish commentators, who argue that the Shoah is uniquely sacred to the memory of those who were killed by the Nazis.

Sol Gordon, author of Personal Issues in Human Sexuality, articulates this outrage:

"In our view, individuals who exhibit the least human dignity are those who compare the Holocaust, the mass murder of six million Jews to abortion. There exists no comparison more immoral or depraved. It is both illogical and outrageous to suggest that the calculated murder of millions of children and adults can be equated with an individual woman's decision to terminate her pregnancy."

In this brief commentary on the Holocaust and Abortion, Dr. Bernard Nathanson was speaking to an audience in California (date unknown).

"I'm going to set it against my Jewish heritage and the Holocaust in Europe. The abortion holocaust is beyond the ordinary discourse of morality and rational condemnation. It is not enough to pronounce it absolutely evil. Absolute evil used to characterize this abortion tragedy, is an inept formulation.

The abortion industry is a new event, severed from connections with traditional presuppositions of history, psychology, politics and morality. It extends beyond the deliberations of reason, beyond the discernments of moral judgment, beyond meaning itself. It trivializes itself to call itself merely a holocaust or tragedy."

It is in the words of Arthur Cohen, perhaps the world's leading scholar on the European Holocaust, a 'mysterium tremendum', an utter mystery to the rational mind.

A mystery that carries with it not only the aspect of vastness, but the resonance of terror, something so utterly diabolic as to be literally unknowable to us.

"This is evil torn free of its moorings in reason and causality, an ordinary secular corruption raised to unimaginable powers of magnification and limitless extremity."

Nelly Sachs, a poetess who wrote poems on the Holocaust in Europe and who won the Nobel Prize in 1966, wrote a poem called 'Chorus of the Unborn'from from which the following quotation allows us an opportunity to appreciate emotion:

"We, the unborn, the yearning has begun to plague us
as shores of blood broaden to receive us.
Like dew, we sink into love but still
the shadows of time lie like questions over our secret."
(Credit to David Kupelian of WorldNetDaily)