Bernard Nathanson's Conversion

Author: Julia Duin

Bernard Nathanson's Conversion

by Julia Duin

------------------------------------------------------------------ One cold January morning in 1989, Bernard Nathanson, famous Jewish abortionist-turned-atheistic-pro-lifer, began to entertain seriously the notion of God. Seven years later, thanks to a persistent Opus Dei priest, the sixty-nine-year-old doctor, author of Aborting America and The Abortion Papers, is becoming a Roman Catholic. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Even though pro-lifers have had him on their prayer lists for some time, Nathanson is still considered quite a big fish to reel in. 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.

"I was not unmoved as time wore on," he now says. But back then, he was not letting on that he was gripped by despair, waking up mornings at 4 or 5 a.m., staring into the darkness or reading from St. Augustine's Confessions along with heavy-duty fare from other intellectuals: Dostoyevsky, Tillich, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Lewis Mumford, and Waldo Frank; what he termed the "literature of sin." As he read and pondered, the doctor realized his despondency had to do with just that, a worthy consideration in that, in his time, he had presided over 75,000 abortions and had helped sculpt the landscape from whence emerged Roe v. Wade in 1973. Sixteen years later, there was no escaping the interior dialogue that haunted and accused, then pointed out Albert Camus's central question of the twentieth century: Whether or not to commit suicide. A grandfather and sister had gone that route; his father had attempted to.

Along came the fateful January morning at a Planned Parenthood Clinic on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he witnessed 1,200 Operation Rescue demonstrators wrapping their arms around each other, singing hymns, smiling at the police and the 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 on the subject, was writing a magazine article on the morality of clinic blockades. He circled about the demonstrators, doing interviews, taking notes, observing the faces.

"It was only then," he writes in his new book, The Hand of God, "that I apprehended the exaltation, the pure love on the faces of that shivering mass of 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, Richard Gilman, Blaise Pascal, and Cardinal Newman, all of whom had taken the path he was considering.

By then he had already gotten to know John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest based in Princeton with a doctorate in theology and a reputation for helping intellectual seekers.

"He'd heard I was prowling around the edges of Catholicism," the doctor says. "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 Orthodox 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. Nathanson 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 how much to allow for reason, how much to turn over to faith.

By then, Nathanson had been involved in abortion for nearly thirth years, beginning in 1945 when he persuaded a pregnant girlfriend to abort their child, which, he says, "served as excursion into the satanic world of abortion." Years 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 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.

But Nathanson was no angel of light. He had already broken the Hippocratic Oath, which forbids abortions; he was failing at the upbringing of his one son, Joseph, now thirty, and he was plowing through his second and third marriages with a vengeance. His divorce from his third wife, Adelle, is final this spring.

For a while, he tried therapy, self-help books, counseling, and spiritualities ranging from theosophy to Swedenborgianism while finding his Judaism inadequate at best. Except for his first marriage in a Jewish ceremony and getting his son bar mitzvahed, he had hardly functioned as a Jew after his midteens. Still he went to speak with two rabbis, one Orthodox and the other Conservative, 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. That's not to condemn the religion but I just didn't find in it what I needed."

Another Orthodox rabbi, David Lapin, founder of the Mercer Island, Wash.-based Toward Tradition, wonders if Nathanson ever understood his Jewish faith.

"Atonement is the action that leads to absolution," he says, "and absolution is only granted during the Day of Atonement. Then there are steps taken throughout the year that include rejecting the wrong and resolving not to repeat it again."

There may be a deeper reason to Nathanson's disenchantment, the rabbi guesses, which has to do with the high level of Jews involved in the abortion business. Nathanson has written of the high percentage of Jewish abortionists. The new national leader of Planned Parenthood, who comes on board in June, is Gloria Feldt, a Jew.

"I believe that Bernard Nathanson's conversion to Catholicism is spurred not by theological deficiencies in a Judaism I don't believe he knew but by a deep compelling desire to distance himself from a faith whose secular wing has embraced abortion with a fervor," Lapin says.

"And there's no question about it. Boston Herald columnist Don Feder points out nearly half of the religious organizations endorsing abortion are Jewish in spite of Jews being 2.3 percent of the U.S. population, not 50 percent. The Jewish community is disproportionately represented in the pro-abortion movement. This taking up the cudgels for abortion is not by any means an expression of Judaism. It is a rejection of God and a rejection of the religious core of Judaism, and in those terms I understand why Bernard Nathanson had to seek another faith."

Nathanson also felt he had to seek something that had the theological construct he needed to face his sin. Life's twilight was approaching and inexorable judgment looming, and the doctor was entranced by the idea of going round and round in one of Dante's seven circles of hell.

"I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent," he writes. "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 in his celebration of the redemptive fall and rise of Easter. I am afraid."

He began casting about 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, now 42, was half Nathanson's age when he met the doctor nine years ago and was all too glad to help along the way. The well-read priest was Nathanson's intellectual equal, able to discuss everything from medieval Jewish philosophers like Spinoza to Etienne Gilson, a twentieth century French philosopher as Nathanson wrestled with his questions.

"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 to prop me up. Reason was a safety net for the leap of faith," he said, borrowing the term 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 first-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. The cross of Jesus Christ and the sacrament of baptism washes away any guilt and temporal punishment for his sins. Once he's baptized, he's a different man. That's the whole essence of Christianity."

Nathanson has since taken off a year to take courses at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. He then wrote the book, floating through which are occasional references to his new love: Jesus Christ, as opposed to his old love: himself. He is considering changing careers and taking up a teaching position at a hospital, possibly a Catholic one. There are several offers. He attends a parish in Manhattan's Chelsea district where soon he will stand before the baptismal font and renounce forever 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."

Julia Duin is the culture page editor for The Washington Times.

© 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine

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