WASHINGTON (BP)–Bernard Nathanson, an abortion-rights pioneer who became an influential pro-life advocate, died Feb. 21 as a result of cancer.
Nathanson, 84, was a leading advocate for abortion rights years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but he converted to the pro-life cause in the late 1970s.
After his conversion, he wrote books about the early abortion-rights movement and spoke widely in support of the right to life of the unborn child. His most effective contribution to the pro-life cause, however, may have been the 1984 documentary video “The Silent Scream.”
In the film, Nathanson used ultrasound technology to demonstrate the humanity of an unborn baby. The video showed a 12-week-old infant shrinking dramatically from the tip of a suction device inserted into his mother’s womb to abort him. At one point, the video showed what Nathanson described as a “silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.” The video is still available at a pro-life Internet website (SilentScream.org) as an effort to help abortion-minded women choose life for their unborn babies.
Nathanson, who lived in New York City, said he was responsible for 75,000 abortions as a doctor performing the procedures, as the director of what he described as “the largest abortion clinic in the Western world” and as a chief of residents performing abortions.
The obstetrician/gynecologist was a founding member in 1969 of an influential abortion-rights organization now known as NARAL Pro-choice America. He wrote in his 1979 book “Aborting America” that his abortion-rights allies and he invented statistics about the number of illegal abortions and of women’s deaths from those procedures to build a case for legalizing the practice.
The development of fetoscopy and ultrasound technology helped bring about Nathanson’s reversal.
“For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it. I began to do that,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography “The Hand of God,” according to The New York Times.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said he knew Nathanson both before and after his pro-life conversion.
“Dr. Nathanson’s conversion from pro-abortion to pro-life is one of the clearest examples that I have ever seen of the law written on the conscience to which Scripture testifies,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Dr. Nathanson became convinced against his will that this was human life that was struggling to survive as he was ending their lives in the abortion procedures. I believe one cannot do abortions without either having his conscience stricken like Dr. Nathanson to the point that he can no longer do them or having his conscience seared by refusing to listen to the law written on the conscience and thus becoming increasingly insensitive to the humanity of unborn citizens.”
Land said Nathanson “did his best for the remainder of his life to undo the terrible damage he had done to the unborn. He was an important and inspiring figure at a critical time in the pro-life movement.
“He was Dr. Death before Dr. Kevorkian was,” Land said, referring to Jack Kevorkian, the assisted suicide promoter and provider. “Dr. Nathanson’s life experience would be like Dr. Kevorkian beginning to volunteer at hospices to try to prolong people’s lives as long as possible.”
Nathanson became a Roman Catholic in the 1990s. He had previously described himself as a Jewish atheist.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.