Sunday, February 21 marked the tenth anniversary of the death of the man who, in his own words, “uncaged the abortion monster in the United States.”
Dr. Bernard Nathanson was responsible for thousands of abortions with his own hands (including his own child!) and tens of thousands of more through his supervision of medical students and his running the largest abortion mill in the Western World.
He eventually questioned and ultimately rejected the morality of abortion, primarily because he spent more time with the unborn child, through the growing technology of ultrasound and our resulting ability to diagnose and treat the unborn child as medical science’s newest patient.
Upon becoming pro-life, he was committed to tell the story of how he and his colleagues launched the abortion movement, through clever deception and manipulation both of the media and the Church. He wrote Aborting America in 1979, and a few years later, The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality. The most stirring of his books is The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind, published in 1996, the year that Cardinal John O’Connor of New York baptized Dr. Nathanson into the Catholic Church.
It was through Cardinal O’Connor, who ordained me, that I first met Dr. Nathanson in the late 1980’s when I was a seminarian for the New York Archdiocese. Dr. Nathanson told us at that time that he thought that if God had created the universe, he didn’t sign it.
But he did eventually see God’s signature as he interacted more and more with pro-life people. He sensed an invisible force, that he later recognized was the power of love, as he witnessed prolife people put their freedom on the line by peacefully blocking the entrances of abortion clinics in the Rescue Movement.
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In 1994, my first full year of leading Priests for Life, I was invited by Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, to be the moderator for the session Dr. Nathanson was leading at the Human Life International Conference in Anaheim, CA. In that unforgettable talk, he traced his spiritual journey, telling an amazed audience that the shell of his atheism was cracked by the love of pro-life people, and that he stood before us that moment “on the brink of conversion.” He said he would rather be wrong with saints than right with brutal dictators. At the end of his talk the room erupted in a standing ovation. (I remember seeing Dr. Alice von Hildebrand practical reach the ceiling when she jumped to her feet.)
But what was most poignant about that session was his remark at the end that he hoped God could forgive him. I told him, in front of the whole audience, that the sick in Calcutta used to ask Mother Teresa if Jesus was like her. She said, “No, but I try to be like him.” I told Dr. Nathanson that pro-life people forgave, loved and welcomed him because God had already done so first. And we all prayed for him out loud at that moment.
At the end of his life, in February of 2011, I visited him in his New York City apartment. He couldn’t get out of his bed and his voice was at a whisper. But the first thing he said to me as I approached his bed was, “Fr. Frank, how goes the crusade?”
His mind was not on his sufferings. It was on us, who labor, as he did, to undo some of the damage he caused by unleashing the abortion monster on America.
We discussed, in that final meeting on earth, as we had done many times before, that his story needs to be told, again and again. He especially urged me to repeat what he had explained publicly about how he “stole the abortion issue from the Church,” “caught the clergy asleep,” and that he and his friends “would never have gotten away with what we did if the clergy had been united, purposeful, and strong.” That is why he encouraged me so strongly to keep growing the ministry of Priests for Life.
He is an encouragement to us all. On this tenth anniversary of his passing, let’s go to Dr. Nathanson again. Let’s re-read his books, accompany him on his journey, and be as resolved as he was to end abortion.