The Pro-Life Legacy of Dr. Bernard Nathanson

by Michael J. New

Bernard Nathanson, a co-founder of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America, passed away at the age of 84 yesterday. Nathanson, along with Norma McCorvey (the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade) is one of the most famous converts to the pro-life cause. In addition to co-founding NARAL, Nathanson served as the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), New York’s largest abortion clinic. Nathanson has written that he performed more than 5,000 abortions and was responsible for more than 75,000 throughout his career.

After converting to the pro-life cause in the late 1970s, Nathanson wrote the book Aborting America, in which he states that he and other supporters of legal abortion fabricated statistics about the number of deaths due to illegal abortions in order to generate support for the pro-choice cause. This has been invaluable information for pro-lifers, since stories about back-alley abortions persuaded many Americans to tolerate, if not support, legal abortion.

In 1984, Nathanson helped produce the documentary The Silent Scream, which showed an ultrasound of an unborn child being aborted. Many were shocked by the graphic video, and it won many converts to the pro-life cause.

President Reagan viewed the film and was impressed with it: “If every member of Congress could see that film … they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.”

The timing of The Silent Scream could not have been better. During the early 1980s, the pro-life movement split badly over how best to draft a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1983, when a Human Life Amendment, drafted by Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and Thomas Eagleton (D., Mo.), finally reached the floor of the U.S. Senate, it received only 49 votes — 18 votes short of passage. The Silent Scream gave the pro-life movement some much-needed momentum when many were tiring of the ongoing struggle to unify around a Human Life Amendment.

Dr. Nathanson continued to write and speak about pro-life issues well into his 70s. In fact, in the spring of 2004, I had the chance to meet him when he agreed to be the keynote speaker at a pro-life conference hosted by the Society for Law, Life, and Religion at Harvard Law School. Seventy-seven years old at the time, he made the trip in from New York that day and impressed attendees by showing a video of fetal surgery. His presence will be missed. R.I.P.

Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.