Reflections of an Ex-Abortionist and Ex-Atheist

Reflections of an Ex-Abortionist and Ex-Atheist
Bernard Nathanson, Ph.D. 

Announcer: Welcome to Human Life International’s 13th World Conference held April 6th through the 10th, 1994. We now join our session recorded live at the Irvine Marriott in Irvine, California.

Fr. Pavone: …Since that time, Dr. Nathanson has become a major spokesman for the defense of unborn children. His films, the “Silent Scream”, and “Eclipse of Reason” have been shown throughout the world, bearing witness to the humanity of the unborn child and to the horror of abortion. Dr. Nathanson serves as Chief of Obstetrical Service at Women’s Hospital in St. Luke’s Hospital Center in New York City. Is that still true, doctor?

Dr. Nathanson: No.

Fr. Pavone: No. I didn’t think so. OK. He’s moved on to Kennedy Institute in Washington DC. And he is also the editor of the (s/l “Bernadel”) Technical Bulletin.

I have been privileged to hear Dr. Nathanson on a number of occasions as I was studying for the priesthood and then subsequent to my ordination to the priesthood and I’m personally grateful to him for many reasons, and not the least of which is the important message he has to the clergy, and I often use his comments in my own speaking with priests throughout the country to encourage them to be more steadfast and vocal on the abortion issue. I can say personally furthermore, that in his life, and by the way this is going to be an extremely interesting presentation as all of his talks are, but this afternoon he is going to speak to us, giving us reflections of an ex-abortionist and ex-atheist. In Dr. Nathanson’s life, we see –in the flesh– the fulfillment of a verse from the letter of James in the New Testament: “Mercy triumphs over judgment”. We welcome Dr. Nathanson.

Dr. Nathanson: This is going to be winged. I don’t have any notes. I don’t have any slides. I’m just going to talk, and ramble along, and there may be some pregnant pauses. I’m an obstetrician, so… So I hope you will bear with me because I want to mark this day fifteen years ago as the day I did my last abortion. And the fifteen years that have passed have been a remarkable odyssey for me medically, ethically, and finally spiritually. And I’ll probably fumble through some words on the spiritual end of it at the very end of this talk.

As you heard I was one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1968. In order to understand how I came to that position you must understand that my father was a physician, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who had been born into very poor circumstances in Canada. He was so poor that during the winters he would put newspapers and blotters into his shoes to keep his feet warm and dry; and he never had an overcoat in medical school. He wore newspapers under his shirt. He had so little money for food that he existed on nothing but white bread and cocoa for four years and developed a terrible anemia, for which he had to be treated. But he was determined to become a doctor. And he did with none of the safety nets we now have. He just did it by sheer grit, and he prevailed and became an enormous success in New York.

My father was born into an orthodox Jewish family, and in fact he used to tell me that when the old man Manischewitz, some of you may have heard of Manischewitz wine, when the old man who founded the company would travel around Canada trying to sell his wine in the city of Ottawa, where my father lived, his home was the only home kosher enough, religious enough, for him to stay at. Manischewitz would not stay with anyone else but my father’s family, because they were so orthodox in their Jewry. And my father was trained to become a rabbi till he was seventeen years of age, and then for reasons which I never divined, but perhaps they had something to do with his first year of medical school, and an exposure to secular principles and secular events, he abandoned the Jewish faith completely, renounced it, and thereafter never practiced it.

Nevertheless, like Catholics, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews never leave their religion. He never really left it. And when I was a young boy, he sent me to religious school, orthodox –Hebrew school– three times a week and the Sunday school of the synagogue. But when I would come home from these excursions into the Jewish religion, and he would ask me what I had learned and I would tell him in a naive sort of way, since I was ten, nine, eleven years old, and then he would deride me, and laugh at what I had learned, and scorn it, and point up the inconsistencies, and tell me that religion was not science, and therefore I could believe nothing. And yet he insisted that I continue and in fact I went through a bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen. I never entered a synagogue again in my life.

So I was burdened by this oppressive weight, this feeling that religion had nothing to give me, that it was a mill stone, that it was a burden which I did not have to carry. And I suppose I drifted off into the area of secular humanism, believing only what could be proved by the empirical scientific evidence. I went to medical school in McGill University in Canada where my father had gone, took many years of post graduate study, and became a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist.

Now during the years that I was training to become an obstetrician, I went through a residency program at a famous hospital where all of American gynecology began. It was called the Woman’s Hospital in New York City. I am talking now about the 50’s, the 1950’s, and we had always on our wards a great number of women who had been injured through illegal abortion. I never stopped to analyze the moral aspects of why these women were there, what had driven them or what they lacked –what was it they lacked that drove them to abortion, especially dangerous abortion. All I was concerned about was that the illegal abortion that these women were undergoing was taking an immense toll in human life and health. And at a dinner in 1967 I was thrown together with a man named Lawrence Lader. That name probably isn’t familiar to many of you, but Lawrence Lader for one was a far left liberal, and still is. He had worked for Vito Marcantonio who was the only card carrying communist who ever was elected to the House of Representatives in the United States Congress. Lader, subsequently after I split with him many years later, formed his organization called Abortion Rights Mobilization, which launched a suit against the Catholic Church demanding that the tax exemption of the Church be taken away because the Church was involved in politics, namely the politics of abortion, and allied issues. That suit finally was dismissed I think a year or two ago in Federal Court, but for a long time it occupied the time and attention and money of the Archdiocese of New York.

At any rate, Lader and I sat together at that dinner and he told me that he had published a book on abortion. And indeed he had a year before. It was a daring book. It was a book which analyzed the abortion situation world wide, most particularly in the U.S., and then demanded that abortion be made legal with no restriction. It was really audacious, but of course, Napoleon once said when he was asked the secret of success, he said, “L’audace, toujour l’audace”; meaning: “Audaciousness, boldness, always boldness”. And Lader was nothing if not bold.

So we talked and we found a lot of common ground. I was interested in doing away with these illegal abortions and he led me of course to the –what appeared to be right reason at that time, namely that we should then work toward legalizing abortion with no restriction. And to that end we founded, he and I and several other people, the National Abortion Rights Action League. It was called in those days the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. And we had our first convention in Chicago in 1969, recruited a number of other people –I think at the time, probably only about five of us, five people in the United States, and I was one of them, believed that one day we would have abortion on demand. Lader was another one and there were three others. I don’t even remember who they were. But it was such an audacious, such a crazy idea, that people laughed at us. But we were very clever, and those of you who lived in the late 60’s and early 70’s will recall that it was a time of enormous anti-authoritarianism, that everything was being questioned. The Vietnam War was on, there were immense mobilizations against it, there was a feeling in the air that authority had crumbled. There was an anarchy in the air which was a fertile ground for any idea, however audacious, however immoral, as long as it was anti-authoritarian.

The sexual revolution had already been launched with the 1965 Griswold decision in the U.S. Supreme, Court which said that contraceptives could be sold to single people and over the counter, and you did not need a prescription for them and so on. So the sexual revolution was beginning, anti-authoritarianism was in the air, and we grabbed it and we ran with it. And within four years abortion was legal throughout the entire United States. The first place we worked was in New York State, which had an anti-abortion statute since 1829. We overturned that within a year with the use of very clever manipulation of the media and a large budget for public relations. And after the law fell in New York, we began with other states and culminated with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

I was very comfortable with all of this. I never thought more deeply than the utilitarian, consequentialist, outcome-based result, that out of this revolution would come clean abortions and women would not be hurt. That was the narrowness of my thinking, the telescopic nature of my thinking at that time, purely utilitarian. The greatest good for the greatest number. Outcome-based. I never thought of the Deontology; I never thought of the virtue or the care ethic or any of the other major theories of biomedical ethics. These had never been explained to me and I did not understand them intuitively or otherwise.

Well, when the New York State law broke, in July of 1970, those of us practicing in hospitals were of course overwhelmed and deluged with people from east of the Mississippi river coming to New York to have their abortions. And at that time we were using beds, hospital beds, for this purpose. Well obviously we couldn’t do that. All hospital beds would be taken up by people wanting abortions. So I devised a plan to open a clinic in which we would practice ambulatory abortion. Now ambulatory surgery, that is walk-in, walk-out surgery today is commonplace, but in 1970 there was no such thing. There was no such thing as walking in, for example, to a surgical center and getting your hernia fixed, or your varicose veins fixed, or your tonsils out, or some other thing and leaving the same afternoon. That was unheard of, but we started that with abortion –with this clinic. And I proved that it could be done; that you could take a woman in, do an abortion, which is a surgical procedure, and let her go home the same day. And that clinic flourished in my hegemony for two years, during which time as you heard, we performed 60,000 abortions.

The clinic functioned from 8 o’clock in the morning until midnight every day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. It was closed on Christmas. I had 35 doctors working for me, 85 nurses, counselors; we had ten operating rooms. The place was busier than any hospital in the city, and made more money than any hospital in the city, I can tell you that. It was non-profit. I was only salaried as a director and I was getting I think $36,000 a year as the director. I had no equity in it. There was an administrator whom I worked with who took care of the housekeeping details, but the entire medical operation functioned under my supervision.

I wrote a number of papers which were published in the medical literature on our experiences at that clinic. And the papers were eagerly received by the liberal press, and even by the liberal medical press. I was, however, excoriated by the medical establishment. The medical establishment considered me beyond the pale for advocating abortion, and I was exiled from the medical establishment in effect. I became a pariah. I was known as the abortion king. My practice dwindled. Doctors would not send me patients for delivery or gynecologic care because I was known as an abortionist.

Interestingly, I throw this in as an aside, now that I am pro-life, I am exiled by the medical establishment. And nobody speaks to me. Well, I had a partner who used to say what goes around, comes around; and I guess it does. You know … I’m groping my way through this. I don’t have … any notes and I’m thinking and talking, and … I apologize in advance if I stumble or repeat myself. I’ve never given this talk to any group before, ever. I’ve always talked from slides or notes, or a really organized lecture with point to point; and I don’t think I have a point –well maybe I do at the end, but I’m just sort of reminiscing here, and this probably will never be repeated.

So anyway, we worked at that clinic very hard. It was a bonanza for some doctors. When I took over the clinic at first we were paying at the rate of $100 an abortion to the doctors doing them. I had one man who practiced all week in Lexington, Kentucky, and then he would fly up Thursday night to New York and work two shifts at my clinic on Friday, two shifts on Saturday, two shifts on Sunday, and fly back to Lexington on Monday morning to resume his usual practice. And in the year that he was with us he made $285,000. Just weekend moonlighting. I gradually stopped that practice and in fact began to work on an hourly basis with the doctors, paying them a rate of, I believe, $90 an hour, so that no one would be using this as a profiteering, or racketeering measure.

We at the beginning could not recruit good doctors, but after I had organized the clinic and really got it running well, we became the first licensed clinic in New York State and indeed in the nation; then that gave a certain cachet to working there, and gradually I began to recruit better and better trained physicians. When I first started there we could only get really the cast-offs. I had one man, I didn’t even know it, who was wanted by the FBI, and another who was heavily into drugs while he was doing abortions, a third who was abusing and molesting women; and gradually we had to peel these people off. But finally we pulled together a good staff, and a competent staff, and the safety record of that clinic will never be matched. We had not one death in the 60,000 abortions that we did, which was a really excellent medical record.

I was simultaneously running the clinic practicing obstetrics and gynecology, doing deliveries. I was also involved in the politics of abortion, traveling all over the country, lobbying legislatures and politicians to open up the laws, since this was before Roe v. Wade. So I was very busy. I hardly ever saw my family. I had a child, a young boy, a wife, and I was never home. I regret bitterly those years for no other reason than I failed to see my child grow up. I still am immensely regretful of that and it has lead to very serious problems with my son, but I won’t bore you with that. Anyway, at the end of 1972, I was exhausted and I decided to leave the clinic and I resigned, and there was a power struggle and ultimately someone else took it over.

I’m … someone who is driven by a work ethic. Somebody once said to me, your first duty is to your duty. And it’s probably true. And so I had a little time, a little space in which to think once I left that clinic. And I began to think about, for the first time, what we had really been doing there –morally and ethically what we had been doing. And this was coincidental with my assuming on the first of January of 1973, when I left the clinic, the post of chief of obstetrical services at the St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. Now that’s a teaching institution for Columbia University Medical School, and it was just at that time, at that very time and I –I’m sure it is no coincidence– the hand of God was there. But it was at that very time that we began to move in to the hospital the new equipment, the new technology in obstetrics, principally ultrasound and fetal heart monitoring, taping … electronic fetal heart monitor, which threw open a window into the womb. And for those of us who were not blind, who would look, it opened up a whole new world. For the first time, we could really see the human fetus. Really measure it. Observe it. Watch it, and bond with it –bond with it. Love it. And I began to do that. I was working with this technology, which was all new, but I found myself bonding with the unborn.

Tell you an anecdote –not an anecdote really, it was … an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine about ten years ago, maybe more, written by a physician and an ethicist at the University of Virginia. They had ten women come into their abortion unit, but before the abortion they did an ultrasound examination on each woman, and they turned the screen to the woman so she could see. Nine out of ten of them left that clinic still pregnant. That’s how powerful the bonding became.

So in 1974, I sat down and wrote, as you heard, an editorial piece for the New England Journal of Medicine, that’s sort of the most prestigious journal in the English language in medicine, which was called “Deeper into Abortion”, and although it was not a pro-life article, it articulated a lot of my doubts and fears as to what I had done. And I made the flat statement in that article that I had presided over sixty thousand deaths. I said this was life, it’s a special order of life, but it’s life. And we have to be reverent in the presence of any kind of life. And by the way, I’m involved now at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics with a lot of work on physician assisted suicide and withdrawal of fluids and food from … people in persistent vegetative states and comas. I must tell you I am the only one who is staunchly against withdrawal of food and water. It’s, you know, its become chic and trendy to say: “Well, that’s medication”. But that’s not medication, that’s just caring for somebody, just ordinary care, and when … in a seminar at Kennedy about a month ago, it was led by someone named Robert Veech, who is a very learned man, a very fine scholar of bioethics. He is the director…

… So … I come to you here today on the brink of conversion, believing the hand of God has moved me here. Believing that God will forgive me for the blood on my hands, the lives I have taken, the tragedies I have created, and ultimately the shambles that has been my life. I wish all of you, I beg you to pray for me. Thank you.

The above is the transcript of a taped talk given by Dr. Bernard Nathanson at Human Life International’s 13th World Conference, held April 6th through the 10th of 1994. Tape # AT275. For more information contact: Human Life International, 4 Family Life, Front Royal, VA 22630, USA. Ph: (540) 635-7884. Fax: (540) 636-7363. Email: Website: You can also contact Vida Humana Internacional, 45 SW 71 Avenue, Miami, FL 33144. Ph: (305) 260-0525. Fax: (305) 260-0595. Email: . Website:

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