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