David Kupelian’s revealing interview with NARAL co-founder Bernard Nathanson, M.D.
During the tumultuous 1960s, after centuries of legal prohibition and moral condemnation of abortion, a handful of dedicated activists launched an unprecedented campaign, whose purpose was two-fold: first, capture the news media and thus public opinion, and then, change the nation’s abortion laws.
Their success was rapid and total – resulting in abortion being legalized in all 50 states, for virtually any reason and throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Since the Supreme Court’s controversial Roe v. Wade decision made 48 years ago today, Jan. 22, 1973, American doctors have performed well over 60 million abortions.
Although polls consistently show a vast majority of Americans oppose of unfettered abortion-on-demand, the movement’s well-crafted, almost magical slogans – appealing to Americans’ deeply rooted inclination toward tolerance, privacy and individual rights – enabled the early abortion marketers to divert attention away from the core issues of exactly what abortion does to both mother and unborn child, focusing instead on a newly created issue: “choice.” No longer was the morality of killing the unborn at issue, but rather, “who decides.”
The original abortion-rights slogans from the early ’70s – they remain virtual articles of faith and rallying cries of the “pro-choice” movement to this day – were “Freedom of choice” and “Women must have control over their own bodies.”
“I remember laughing when we made those slogans up,” recalled Bernard Nathanson, M.D., co-founder of pro-abortion vanguard group NARAL, during a lengthy interview I did with him in 1990. Reminiscing about the early days of the abortion-rights movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he confided, “We were looking for some sexy, catchy slogans to capture public opinion. They were very cynical slogans then, just as all of these slogans today are very, very cynical.”
Besides having served as chairman of the executive committee of NARAL – originally, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, and later renamed the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League – Nathanson was one of the principal architects and strategists of the abortion movement in the United States. He told me an astonishing story.
Changing the law on abortion
“In 1968 I met Lawrence Lader,” Nathanson explained. “Lader had just finished a book called ‘Abortion,’ and in it had made the audacious demand that abortion should be legalized throughout the country. I had just finished a residency in obstetrics and gynecology and was impressed with the number of women who were coming into our clinics, wards and hospitals suffering from illegal, infected, botched abortions.
“Lader and I were perfect for each other. We sat down and plotted out the organization now known as NARAL. With Betty Friedan, we set up this organization and began working on the strategy.”
“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. These false figures took root in the consciousness of Americans, convincing many that we needed to crack the abortion law.
“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. 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 since legalization.”
NARAL’s brilliantly deceitful marketing campaign, bolstered by fraudulent “research,” was uncannily successful. In New York, the law outlawing abortion had been on the books for 140 years. “In two years of work, we at NARAL struck that law down,” said Nathanson. “We lobbied the legislature, we captured the media, we spent money on public relations … Our first year’s budget was $7,500. Of that, $5,000 was allotted to a public relations firm to persuade the media of the correctness of our position. That was in 1969.”
New York immediately became the abortion capital for the eastern half of the United States.
“We were inundated with applicants for abortion,” Nathanson told me. “To that end, I set up a clinic, the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), which operated in the east side of Manhattan. It had 10 operating rooms, 35 doctors, 85 nurses. It operated seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight. We did 120 abortions every day 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.”
At the time, CRASH was the largest abortion clinic in America.
‘A window into the womb’
After two years, Nathanson resigned from CRASH and became chief of the obstetrical service at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, a major teaching center for Columbia University Medical School. At that time, in 1973, a raft of new technologies and apparatuses had just become available, all designed to afford physicians a “window into the womb.”
Nathanson recounted for me the dazzling array of cutting-edge technologies coming online back then:
Real-time ultrasound: an instrument which beams high-frequency sound into the mother’s abdomen. The echoes that come back are collected by a computer and assembled into a moving picture;
Electronic fetal heart monitoring: We clamp an apparatus on the mother’s abdomen, and then continuously record the fetal heart rate, instant by instant;
Fetoscopy: an optical instrument put directly into the womb. We could watch that baby, actually eyeball it.
Cordocentesis: taking a needle, sticking it into the pregnant mother’s uterus and, under ultrasound, locating the umbilical arteries and actually putting a needle into the cord, taking the baby’s blood, diagnosing its illnesses, and treating it by giving it medicine. Today, surgery is actually performed on the unborn!
“Anyway,” Nathanson told me, “as a result of all of this technology – looking at this baby, examining it, investigating it, watching its metabolic functions, watching it urinate, swallow, move and sleep, watching it dream, which you could see by its rapid eye movements via ultrasound, treating it, operating on it – I finally came to the conviction that this was my patient. This was a person! I was a physician, pledged to save my patients’ lives, not to destroy them. So I changed my mind on the subject of abortion.”
“There was nothing religious about it,” he hastened to add. “This was purely a change of mind as a result of this fantastic technology, and the new insights and perceptions I had into the nature of the unborn child.”
Nathanson expressed some doubts about abortion then, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. “I was immediately summoned to a kangaroo court and was discharged from the pro-abortion movement, something I do not lose sleep over.”
In 1985, intrigued by the question of what really happens during an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, Nathanson decided to put an ultrasound machine on the abdomen of a woman undergoing an abortion and to videotape what happens.
“We got a film that was astonishing, shocking, frightening,” he told me.
It was made into a film called “The Silent Scream.” It was shattering, and the pro-abortion people panicked. Because at this point, we had moved the abortion debate away from moralizing, sermonizing, sloganeering and pamphleteering into a high-tech argument. For the first time, the pro-life movement now had all of the technology and all of the smarts, and the pro-abortion people were on the defensive.
Nathanson’s film provoked a massive campaign of defamation on the part of the pro-abortion movement, including charges that he had doctored the film. He hadn’t. “I was accused of everything from pederasty to nepotism. But the American public saw the film.”
In 1987, Nathanson released another, even stronger film called “Eclipse of Reason,” introduced by Charlton Heston. “‘The Silent Scream’ dealt with a child who was aborted at 12 weeks,” said Nathanson. “But there are 400 abortions every day in this country that are done after the third month of pregnancy. Contrary to popular misconception, Roe v. Wade makes abortion permissible up to and including the ninth month of pregnancy. I wanted to dramatize what happens in one of these late abortions, after the third month.” He explained:
They took a fetuscope, which is a long optical instrument with a lens at one end and a strong light at the other. They inserted the fetuscope into the womb of a woman at 19-1/2 weeks, and a camera was clamped on the eyepiece and then the abortionist went to work.
This procedure was known as a D&E (dilation and evacuation). It involves dilating the cervix, rupturing the bag of waters, taking a large crushing instrument and introducing it way high up into the uterus, grabbing a piece of the baby, pulling it off the baby, and just repeating this procedure until the baby has been pulled apart piece by piece.
Then the pieces are assembled on a table, put together like a jigsaw puzzle, so the abortionist can be sure that the entire baby has been removed. We photographed all this through the fetuscope. This is a shattering film.
Thus did Bernard Nathanson, once a founder and top strategist of the pro-abortion movement, come to be staunchly committed to the cause of ending legalized abortion in America.
Nathanson is by no means the only abortionist to switch sides in the abortion war. In recent decades, hundreds of abortion providers have left their profession. On its website, NARAL has bemoaned “the dwindling number of doctors willing or trained to perform abortions.”
Putting the genie back in the bottle
Ironically, Bernard Nathanson, perhaps the closest thing to being “the man who started it all” for the “pro-choice movement” – the Edward Teller of abortion – spent the rest of his life trying to put the abortion genie back in the bottle. Like Norma McCorvey – who as the barefoot-and-pregnant “Jane Roe” was the pro-abortion plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s momentous and fateful Roe v. Wade decision – Nathanson also became utterly dedicated to putting an end to what both later came to see as a national tragedy on a par with the Nazi Holocaust.
“Let me share with you my own personal perception of the abortion tragedy,” Nathanson told one California audience:
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 tragedy 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 a 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 unutterably diabolic as to be literally unknowable to us.
“This is an 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.’ Permit me to give you a few lines. She said:
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.
‘The Hand of God’
Six years after his interview with me, Dr. Bernard Nathanson – who had long described himself as a “Jewish atheist,” including during the years when he first turned away from abortion – converted to Roman Catholicism and was baptized by John Cardinal O’Connor in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. That same year, he published his autobiography, “The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by The Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind.” Toward the end of this insightful and shatteringly honest narrative, Nathanson describes one particular experience – his presence during a 1989 Operation Rescue demonstration against Planned Parenthood in New York City – that directly precipitated his spiritual conversion to Christianity:
Now, I had not been immune to the religious fervor of the pro-life movement. I had been aware in the early and mid-eighties that a great many of the Catholics and Protestants in the ranks had prayed for me, were praying for me, and I was not unmoved as time wore on. But it was not until I saw the spirit put to the test on those bitterly cold demonstration mornings, with pro-choicers hurling the most fulsome epithets at them, the police surrounding them, the media openly unsympathetic to their cause, the federal judiciary fining and jailing them, and municipal officials threatening them – all through it they sat smiling, quietly praying, singing, confident and righteous of their cause and ineradicably persuaded of their ultimate triumph – 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?
And for the first time in my entire adult life, I began to entertain seriously the notion of God – a god who problematically had led me through the proverbial circles of hell, only to show me the way to redemption and mercy through His grace. The thought violated every eighteenth-century certainty I had cherished; it instantly converted my past into a vile bog of sin and evil; it indicted me and convicted me of high crimes against those who had loved me, and against those whom I did not even know; and simultaneously – miraculously – it held out a shimmering sliver of Hope to me, in the growing belief that Someone had died for my sins and my evil two millennia ago.
Bernard Nathanson passed away on Feb. 21, 2011, at the age of 84.