by Jay Nordlinger

Okay, folks, a “controversial” issue. If abortion is too icky for you, please skip! In Impromptus today, I discuss one of the extraordinary men of the age: Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who died last week at 84. He was one of the leading abortion doctors in the country, and one of the leading abortion-rights advocates in the country. He was at the center of what you might call the abortion cause. This obit in the Los Angeles Times will give you details.

In the course of his work, he changed his mind, and changed it radically. He recoiled from abortion, and therefore from what he was doing. In the mid-1980s, he narrated a film called The Silent Scream. It showed you what an abortion was. And this had a big, big influence on many.

Before that time, abortion was presented mainly as a matter of women’s rights — not all that different from the right to vote, or the right to divorce. There was a slogan: “A fetus in a woman’s womb has no more standing than a hamburger in her stomach.” Nathanson was a changer of perceptions. We began talking about the fetus — the baby — not just the woman, or mother. (In politically correct circles, you were not supposed to say “baby” or “mother.” Those were verboten — indeed, incendiary — words.)

The abortion side had trouble arguing with Nathanson because — well, he knew abortion so well. He had performed thousands of them, and overseen tens of thousands more. He also knew every leading light in the abortion movement personally. Moreover, he was a Jewish atheist (although he would later convert to Catholicism). Abortion opponents were supposed to be snake-handling holy rollers who wanted to keep women barefoot and pregnant. It was hard to portray Dr. Nathanson that way.

I have a final point I wish to make, but, first, I’d like to quote from my recent profile of Thomas Sowell (appearing in National Review a couple of issues ago). These words bear on our discussion:

Sowell says that, like many people, he had always thought of abortion in a particular way: An “unformed mass of cells” existed “somewhere in the body”; a doctor removed it, and that was that. But “once I began to learn about these ultrasounds,” it was plain that “there’s a little person in there,” which is a “different ballgame.” Sowell notes that people like to say, “A woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body.” But it should be obvious that there’s another body in question.

Needless to say, a lot of people were angry with Nathanson when he switched sides. The abortion-rights movement regarded him as a traitor. The anti-abortion movement had landed a very, very big fish (the biggest abortionist in the country, basically). Betty Friedan, his erstwhile comrade-in-arms, was asked what she thought of him. She said, “Whittaker Chambers comes to mind.”

As I write in Impromptus, that is actually a brilliant comparison — absolutely brilliant. Both men served causes — in the one case Communism, in the other case abortion — that they came to reject, with revulsion. And they dedicated the rest of their lives to working for the opposite cause. They were spurred by crises of conscience.

Whatever you think of him, Nathanson was a consequential man, and, as I said, an extraordinary one. I’m not sure that the anti-abortion movement — the pro-life movement, whatever you want to call it — has ever had a more important figure.

On to less controversial, less icky, and less important subjects . . .

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