March for Life - Dr. Bernard Nathanson's Conversion

Jan 19 was the 45th annual March for Life. Though some politicians and social commentators would like us all to go away, that will not happen. It cannot happen. Too much is at stake for our country, families, the pre-born, and our souls.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson was one of the most instrumental people in legalizing abortion. He later repented and converted to the Church.
This account of his journey is excerpted from a 1997 article. Dr. Nathanson died in 2011. Next week we’ll shine much needed light on the way abortion was legalized. But above all, let’s continue to pray
for the healing of so many men and women who have been impacted by a culture of death - and for our country.

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Nathanson and Mc CorveyDr. Bernard Nathanson and Norma McCorvey, aka “Jane Roe,” pictured in 1985 and 1998, respectively, Both converted to the Catholic Church.




Bernard Nathanson's Conversion by Julia Duin

One cold winter morning in 1989, Bernard Nathanson, famous abortionist-turned-atheistic-pro-lifer, began to entertain seriously the notion of God. 7 years later, the 69 year-old doctor, author of Aborting America and The Abortion Papers, became a Roman Catholic. Pro- lifers had him on their prayer lists for some time. Unique in the medical profession for having made a public turnabout on the abortion issue in the 1970s, he had been aware of being a spiritual target for nearly a decade. But back then, he was not letting on that he was gripped by despair, waking up at 4:00, staring into the darkness, reading St. Augustine's Confessions along with heavy-duty fare from Tillich, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard; what he termed the "literature of sin." As he read and pondered, he knew his despondency had to do with just that, a consideration that in his time he presided over 75,000 abortions.

Along came the fateful January morning at a Planned Parenthood Clinic on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he saw 1,200 Operation Rescue demonstrators wrapping their arms around each other, singing hymns, smiling at the police and media. Nathanson, who was already well known for founding the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1968 and overseeing the world's largest abortion clinic before the advent of ultrasound in the 1970s changed his mind forever, was writing an article on the morality of clinic blockades. He circled about the demonstrators, doing interviews, taking notes, observing faces. "It was only then," he writes in his book, The Hand of God, "that I apprehended the exaltation, the pure love on the faces of those shivering people, surrounded as they were by hundreds of New York City policemen."

He listened as they prayed for the unborn, the women seeking abortions, the doctors and nurses in the clinic, the police, and reporters covering the event. "They prayed for each other but never for themselves," he writes. "And I wondered: How can these people give of themselves for a constituency that is (and always will be) mute, invisible and unable to thank them?” It was only then," he adds, "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?"

Prodded by an intellectual compulsion to find out more, Nathanson changed his reading material. 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, Pascal, and Cardinal Newman, all of whom had taken the path he was considering. By then he had already gotten to know John McCloskey, a priest at Princeton with a reputation for helping intellectual seekers. "He'd heard I was prowling around the edges of Catholicism. He contacted me and we began to have weekly talks. He'd come to my house and give me reading materials. He guided me down the path to where I am now. I owe him more than anyone else."

Other than McCloskey, the biggest influence on Nathanson's decision was Karl Stern, a world-renowned psychoanalyst who was one of his professors in the 1940s at McGill University Medical College in Montreal. Stern had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1943 and later chronicled his spiritual journey in Pillar of Fire. Nathanson never knew of this until 1974, when he discovered a tattered copy of Stern's book. He would return to this book again and again, fascinated with how Stern could use his brilliant mind to embrace faith and adopt as his heroine Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church. Nathanson found Stern's demeanor exquisitely sensitive to the doubts and questions of intellectuals who struggled with the relation between Faith and Reason. By then, Nathanson had been involved in abortion for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1945 when he persuaded a pregnant girlfriend to abort their child, which, he says, "served as an excursion into the satanic world of abortion." Later, he impregnated another woman and aborted that child himself.

He was directing the country's largest abortion clinic in New York. "What is it like to terminate the life of your own child?" he writes in the book. "I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, my colleagues, casual acquaintances, even my teachers. There was never a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme self-confidence that I was doing a major service to those who sought me out." Still, his confidence was wavering by the early 1970s. Ultrasound, a new technology, was making it clear that what was in the womb could suck its thumb and do other human-like things, and thus Nathanson began distancing himself first from the clinic, then from abortions altogether. In 1984, he premiered a movie, The Silent Scream, that showed an ultrasound of a child being aborted. The spectacle of such a film backed by a cofounder of NARAL lent it credibility and created a sensation. Pro-lifers scrambled to watch it; pro-choicers repudiated their former ally.

He went to speak with 2 rabbis, 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.

Nathanson also felt he needed to face his sin. Life's twilight was approaching and judgment looming. "I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent." 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. I was afraid."

He searched 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."

McCloskey was half Nathanson's age when he met the doctor 9 years ago and was all too glad to help along the way. The priest was Nathanson's intellectual equal, able to discuss everything from medieval Jewish philosophers like Spinoza to Etienne Gilson, a 20th century French philosopher. "He's receptive, he's a listener, and he speaks the language of reason and erudition," Nathanson says of his instructor. "He's simpatico with someone like myself who's seeking faith but still wants reason - a difficult language to speak simultaneously. “I needed faith but I needed reason too. Reason was a safety net for the leap of faith," he said, borrowing from Kierkegaard. "You can remove the net, but only after you've made the leap."

Nathanson was likewise fascinated with Luke the evangelist, who besides being a physician was also a credible 1st century historian. Reading Luke and Acts was essential to Nathanson's slow switch to Christianity as he grasped Luke's point that the unbelievable events such as a physical resurrection of the dead were possible and had actually happened.

"It requires true courage to admit not only you're wrong but you're awfully wrong," McCloskey says. "He is a man of goodwill and a man interested in pursuing the truth no matter what the cost. I think he's been doing enormous penance for the pro-life cause since the late '70s when he changed his mind. In a human sense, he's been making reparation." Nathanson speaks of his new love: Jesus Christ, as opposed to his old love: himself. He attends a parish in Manhattan where he will stand at the baptismal font and renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil. "I will be free from sin," he says. "For the first time in my life, I will feel the shelter and warmth of faith."

A young Nathanson and John Paul IINathanson with Pope


Heart, Soul and Mind

Monsignor Royal's weekly column as featured in our bulletin.


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