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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
This article was taken from the June 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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