Former Abortionist Finds His Epiphany In 'Hand of God': Spiritual quest leads to Catholicism

Author: Julia Duin

Former Abortionist Finds His Epiphany In 'Hand of God'

Spiritual quest leads to Catholicism

Julia Duin The Washington Times March 27, 1996

Bernard Nathanson, the Jewish abortion doctor-turned-atheistic pro-lifer, is turning another corner in his often-unhappy life.

The man who presided over 75,000 abortions in the 1960s and 1970s hopes that around this corner will lie the end to the torment, the sense of sin and death, that has haunted his sleep.

This spring, Dr. Nathanson, 69, co-author of the influential book, "Aborting America," will be baptized a Roman Catholic.

Pro-lifers have long awaited this switch, which may take place at the residence of his new friend, New York Cardinal John O'Connor. Pro-life activists such as Joan Andrews will be invited, along with a godmother, godfather and the doctor's spiritual director, the Rev. John McCloskey of the Catholic order Opus Dei (Work of God).

Dr. Nathanson's new book, "The Hand of God," details the reasons for his conversion, one of them being the fear of hell.

"I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world ' he writes, "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."

That fear of the inexorable judgment, for which he was unprepared by his Jewish upbringing led him toward Catholic theology, which makes space for guilt in the sacrament of confession. Along with that comes absolution by a priest, a fellow human who can assure him that he is clean and "that someone," he writes, "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."

The turning point in his decision to become a Christian happened at an Operation Rescue anti-abortion demonstration in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Manhattan.

It was a cold, winter day in 1989 and Dr. Nathanson was there to research a magazine article on the ethics of blockading clinics. The sight of 1,200 demonstrators praying and singing while surrounded by seemingly hostile news media and police led him "seriously to question what indescribable force generated them to this activity

"For the first time in my entire adult life, I began to entertain seriously the notion of God."

Born the son of a Jewish doctor in Ottawa, Dr. Nathanson attended Hebrew school before moving to a mostly Jewish private school in New York. But he found his religion "stern, unforgiving, alienating" even after his bar mitzvah at the age of 13.

In 1948, he encountered Dr. Karl Stern, a world-renowned psychiatrist who was one of his professors at McGill University Medical College in Montreal. Five years before, Dr. Stern had converted from Orthodox Judaism to Roman Catholicism and later wrote a book, "Pillar of Fire," about the dynamics of conversion.

Dr. Stern never told the young medical student about his Christianity, and Dr. Nathanson didn't learn of it until 1974, when he discovered a tattered copy of Dr. Stern's book.

By then, he had been involved in abortion for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1945, when his persuading a pregnant girlfriend to abort their child "served as excursion into the satanic world of abortion."

Years later, between marriages, he impregnated another woman and aborted that child himself. By this time, he had founded what was to become the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and for a time directed the country's largest abortion clinic.

"What is it like to terminate the life of your own child?" he writes. "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."

With the advent of ultrasound in the early 1970s, Dr. Nathanson began questioning the morality of aborting something he could see moving about in the womb. He gradually repudiated abortion joining the ranks of the pro-lifers in the early 1980s with a movie, "The Silent Scream." This ultrasound film of a child being aborted earned the scorn of former pro-choice allies.

He also began to question his own life. One option was suicide, not only because of the abortions but because of his three failed marriages; his having violated the Hippocratic Oath, which forbids abortion; and his failures at fathering his son, Joseph, now 30.

" I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent," he writes, and he would wake daily at 4 or 5 a.m., staring into the darkness. He began to read "literature of sin," passages from St. Augustine's "Confessions" and to dip into the writings of Dostoevski, Tillich, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr and others.

Dr. Nathanson found his Jewish upbringing of little help in dealing with the concept of sin.

"That's not to condemn the religion," he said in an interview, "but I just didn't find in it what I needed."

The Jewish understanding of sin differs theologically from Catholicism, says Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Georgetown.

"In Catholicism, sin is with a capital 'S.' In Judaism, it's with a small 's'" the rabbi says. "It's missing the target. It does not imply horrible wrongness or existential angst about being guilty It's 'I did something wrong. I need to ask forgiveness. I need to do better.'"

If that's not enough, "then I'd recommend a series of actions to try to make a positive impact on the world, to balance out his sense he's done something wrong," the rabbi adds. "Draw on the resources of your native religion before going to something else."

But the doctor had long since dismissed his Judaism as inadequate. Except for getting married for the first time in a Jewish ceremony and getting his son bar mitzvahed, he hardly functioned as a Jew after his midteens.

Soon after the Operation Rescue demonstration, he started to study the literature of conversion rereading Dr. Stern, Malcolm Muggeridge, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weill, Richard Gilman, Blaise Pascal and Cardinal Newman.

He took off a year to take courses at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University and began seeing Father McCloskey, a Bethesda-born priest.

"He'd heard I was prowling around the edges of Catholicism. He contacted me, and we began to have weekly talks," the doctor says. "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."

Father McCloskey says, "Dr. Nathanson has come to the realization of the enormities of what he's been involved in long before I met him.

"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 t he said.

Until then, Dr. Nathanson attends a parish in Manhattan's Chelsea district, although he cannot partake of the Mass until he stands before the baptismal font.

"I will be free from sin," he says. "For the first time in my life, I will feel the shelter and warmth of faith."