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Aborting America: Bernard Nathanson


Jun 21, 2011 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Miscellaneous

It would be hard to overstate the role Bernard Nathanson played in legalizing abortion in the United States. He was the only doctor among the founders of the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and provided both organization and credibility to a movement decidedly lacking in both. At great personal cost, Dr. Nathanson revolutionized the clinical practice of abortion. For an 18-month period in the early 1970's, just prior to the passing of Roe vs. Wade, his NYC clinic operated from 8am - midnight, seven days a week, performing roughly 100 abortions a day. Abortion on that scale had never been done anywhere in the world. In a 1973 story on Roe vs. Wade, The New York Times quoted Dr. Nathanson as follows: "In its ban on regulating first-trimester abortions, the court cited the 'now established medical fact of safety.' Everybody knows that this 'medical fact' was established here, and that the court relied on the data, experience, and abortion-safety record of New York City." Without Dr. Nathanson's relentless efficiency, abortion may have never entered the medical mainstream. Lawyers and activists certainly played a part, but all their arguments were propped up by the actual practice of Bernard Nathanson. He was at the center of the storm. And then he walked away from it all, soon becoming one of the most stirring and authoritative abortion opponents in the world.

Doctor Nathanson died earlier this year, but he left a remarkable legacy on both sides of the abortion divide—one that includes two compelling books detailing his ideological turnaround. I read them both a few years back and have finally returned to them as reference for a new page in Abort73's Case Against Abortion: "Crisis of Conscience." Bernard Nathanson's first book, Aborting America, was published in 1981. The whole thing is well worth a read, but since it's out of print and hard to come by, I offer you these selections. I'll start with some statements he makes regarding abortion's propensity to attract greedy and unscrupulous characters. These remarks describe what he found upon taking over the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in 1971—the NYC abortion clinic that he rescued from imminent closure:

And speaking of doctors, they are atrocious. I mean, we've got everything, you name it. Sadists, drunks, incompetents, sex maniacs, thieves, butchers, and lunatics, and nobody to tell them anything. (98)

[Course] behavior and barracks language, I soon discovered, was endemic to this curious institution. (103)

If I were an inspecting officer of the city or state, I probably not only would have shut this shambles down forthwith, but would very likely have moved to arrest the author of it all. (108)

I was in charge of as picturesque and venal a band of scoundrels as had been collected [in the history of surgical medicine]. (112)

Doctors were earning more than $1,000 on an eight-hour shift, with two abortions an hour and in some cases three. Some worked two shifts a day and doubled their income… Physicians would fight for the paying cases, find reasons not to do patients whom the clergy had sent with a request for reduced rates, and disappear altogether when asked to do the free cases. (114)

What reputable gynecologist, without inducement, would work in an abortion clinic…? (115)

[When the health inspectors arrived], Jesse scurried around six steps ahead of us, tidying up, pleading with the counselors to stash any marijuana… (127)

At the outset of chapter three, Nathanson shares the lyrics from a popular "drinking song" frequently sung by the gynecological interns at their favorite, South Side bar in Chicago. It goes like this:

There's a fortune . . . in abortion
Just a twist of the wrist and you're through.
The population . . . of the nation
Won't grow if it's left up to you.
In the daytime . . . in the nighttime
There is always some work to undo.
Oh, there's a fortune . . . in abortion
But you'll wind up in the pen before you're through.

Now there's a gold mine . . . in the sex line
And it's so easy to do.
Not only rabbits . . . have those habits
So why worry 'bout typhoid and flu?
You never bother . . . the future father
And there are so many of them, too.
Oh, there's a fortune . . . in abortion
But you'll wind up in the pen before you're through.

In light of the extremely unflattering portraits Nathanson draws of those in the abortion industry, it's easy to wonder what drew him to such work in the first place. It certainly wasn't the money or the company. At various points in the book, Nathanson notes that unlike the full-time abortionists, "my abortion work cost me heavily in lost income" (116). Before taking over the abortion clinic as director, he did much of the groundwork for its initial launch. He worked for nothing, and because of the dubious legal standing of the clinic, fully expected to go to jail. His was an ideological commitment to the importance of offering safe, low-cost abortions—a commitment born from his medical residency in Chicago, where he spent many a late night trying to save poor young women ("invariably… black or Puerto Rican") from a botched abortion. He describes his mindset this way:

I suppose that in fury at my own impotence to aid my patients, and particularly in anger at the egregious inequity in the availability of abortions, the germination of an idea began: the need to change the laws. There seemed no time for the luxury of contemplating the theoretical morality of abortion or the soundness of freedom of choice. Something simply had to be done. (23)

Lader (a co-founder of NARAL) and his crusade came to me at the right moment. I was upset over the health hazard from illegal abortion, and had moved from disillusionment to cynicism to anger at the inequity and hypocrisy in the abortion business… Lader never misrepresented his radical purpose: total abolition of abortion restrictions… It did not seem a time for careful analysis of the issues. (31)

At the center of Larry Lader's vision for mainstreaming abortion was the courtship of feminists and open warfare with the Catholic Church. Nathanson recalls the following:

"If we're going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we're going to have to recruit the feminists," (Lader said)… Even then, I considered abortion to be a broad social issue that feminists should not arrogate to themselves. Most important, I figured that if the feminists appeared to take over, the necessary abortion reform would be dismissed by moderates without a fair hearing. I was dead wrong, of course. Lader's marriage with the feminists was a brilliant tactic. (32-33)

Then Larry brought out his favorite whipping boy. ". . . and the other thing we've got to do is bring the Catholic hierarchy out where we can fight them. That's the real enemy. The biggest single obstacle to peace and decency throughout all of history." . . . It passed through my mind that if one had substituted "Jewish" for "Catholic," it would have been the most vicious anti-Semitic tirade imaginable." (33)

Ironically (in light of NARAL's purported feminist sympathies), one of the earliest and most important donations to NARAL came from the Playboy Foundation, which had built an empire on the commodification of women. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nathanson described Larry Lader as a "male chauvinist feminist" (30). These remarks describe his strategy for giving a public face to NARAL:

For president, we needed someone pledged to activism and politically astute. Of course it had to a woman, though Larry figured to actually run N.A.R.A.L. as chairman of the Executive Committee. (50)

"We've got to keep the women out in front," [Larry] asserted. "You know what I mean." Yes, I did. And that made eminent political sense, too. "And some blacks, Black women especially. Why are they so damn slow to see the importance of this whole movement to themselves?". . . We must have sifted through fifty or more names for honorary president. What we needed were a white Establishment figure (let's not get too radical and alienate the grass roots) and also a black (to counteract those who thought abortion was "genocide") and also a female. Even by the third drink, it was unavoidably clear that these three requirements simply could not be combined in the same person. (53)

From a tactical perspective, these remarks indicate how they set about to circumvent existing anti-abortion laws:

The attack had to be made in the weakest area, the psychiatric indication, which was inexact, unmeasurable, yet sufficiently threatening. Once a breach was made in that area, once a few precedent-setting cases got by, then we could pour them through in unlimited number. The supposed threat of suicide was the logical battering ram. It was just a question of finding a squad of complaisant psychiatrists. I knew a number of staff psychiatrists… and knew that they were in general a liberally oriented breed. I had drawn a few of them out and found them sympathetic to expanded psychiatric indications for therapeutic abortion. The pieces fell nicely into place. The Psychiatric Harlequinade of 1969 began. (39-40)

Having approved the first few abortions on psychiatric grounds, they could hardly reject the next hundred when the letters came from the same staff psychiatrists, couched in the same ominous though opaque psycho-jargon. (41)

I was assigned the task of bringing in a detailed plan of action for the proposed demonstration against local hospitals which refused to open up to a more liberal interpretation of "therapeutic abortion, " that is, to make their Therapeutic Abortion Committee into a rubber-stamp operation. (60)

Though abortion had been legalized in New York prior to the passage of Roe vs. Wade, this is how Dr. Nathanson reflected on the court's landmark verdict. The first remark comes in the context of his supporting elective abortion. The rest come in the context of his opposing it:

Of course, I was pleased with Justice Harry Blackmun's abortion decisions, which were an unbelievably sweeping triumph for our cause, far broader than our 1970 victory in New York or the advances since then. I was pleased with Blackmun's conclusions, that is. I could not plumb the ethical or medical reasoning that had produced the conclusions. Our final victory had been propped up on a misreading of obstetrics, gynecology, and embryology, and that's a dangerous way to win. (163)

The basics [of prenatal development] were well-known to human embryology at the time the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1973 rulings, even though the rulings made no use of them. (201)

Speaking for the "discipline of medicine," we know that there is an independent, self-initiating biological entity from the point when the sperm unites with the egg, and we are able to discern its presence and activity beginning with implantation. If this is not "life," what is? What Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the decisions by the majority, ought to have said is that medicine cannot tell us whether or when alpha is a protectable life, which medicine cannot say. That is a legal and philosophical matter, one the court evaded by deciding it could not tell "when life begins." This is the crucial flaw in the decision… Blackmun's incursion into medicine was regrettably ill-informed. (211)

This "health of the mother" standard amounts to virtual elective abortion throughout the nine months because of the sweeping way in which "health" is used by the pro-abortionists to cover every possible problem of mind and situation. (213-214)

This is the fundamental weakness in Justice Blackmun's pro-abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. As expressed by Archibald Cox, the constitutional law expert at Harvard (and Watergate prosecutor), the decision "fails even to consider what I would suppose to be the most compelling interest of the State in prohibiting abortion: the interest in maintaining that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has always been at the center of western civilization." (264)

So how exactly did Dr. Nathanson come to so radically change his position on abortion? It was the combination of many things, but here's how he described the process at one point in the book:

This evolution of my thinking will sound incredible to many. I was generally aware of these biological developments during the years of my abortion crusade. Three things happened. First, I reflected again on the older knowledge in perinatology. Second, new data were reported all the time. Third, and most important, I opened myself up to the data. When one is caught up in revolutionary fervor, one simply does not want to hear the other side and filters out evidence without realizing it. Until 1973 I was sold a bill of goods. No–let me be honest–I was selling a bill of goods. I had been terribly disturbed by the injustice and hypocrisy of the '60's, the disparity between rich and poor, East Side and West Side. I had seen the victims of self-abortion and hack abortionists. After the fever of activity had cooled, I found myself reflecting on the seeds of our revolution. (165)

I'll close with a miscellaneous round of statements that struck me as particularly poignant:

The original nineteenth-century (anti-abortion) laws in New York and elsewhere had been placed on the books mostly by doctors when there were few Catholics around. (52)

Abortion was still a distasteful subject to the body politic of established medicine. In fact, a majority of the nation's physicians opposed a change in the laws. (74)

The heart of my platform was the brazen and then-irresponsible assumption that first-trimester abortion was a simple procedure about as demanding as dental hygiene… (85)

Feminists are sometimes so intent on denying the "right to life" of the fetus, and so intent on the absolute right to abort, that they forget that the woman has a "right to life." The womb is no place for non-surgeons to tinker with experimental hardware. (92)

The "beneficiaries" of anti-abortion laws are not Roman Catholics or their bishops, but fetuses, the majority of which would be born and grow up to be non-Catholic. (177)

The U.S. statutes against abortion have a non-sectarian history. They were put on the books when Catholics were a politically insignificant minority. (178)

Few pro-abortionists have had the integrity or the courage to advocate abortion as "just another" birth-control method. Does not some recondite human repugnance for abortion lurk here? (191)

James Mohr's historical book points out that the original nineteenth-century feminists were universally opposed to abortion, even after antisepsis had made it a safer procedure. They considered it yet another outrage that had been inflicted upon women by men who forced them to have abortions. (193)

Virtually every U.S. Poll over the past decade has shown that women are significantly more anti-abortion than men are. (193)

Why, then, do I now dismiss the whole carnage argument (that women will die en masse if abortion is outlawed)? Simply because technology has eliminated it. (198)

[An unborn human] is the smallest and most precarious entity in the spectrum of the human community. Even in my pro-abortion days, I was always a little puzzled privately by the spectacle of Christian ministers laboring on behalf of abortion, given their religion's insistence that we must protect the weak, but I never really thought this through. (232)

Why should a parent have a special right to inflict harm on her own children-to-be that would not be allowed in the case of another person's child-to-be? (260)

Even though I end up agreeing with the Right-to-Lifers at many points, I do not think of myself as part of their ranks. I have come to my views wholly independently, based upon my extensive experience in abortion, which the Right-to-Lifers will never share. I have reached my conclusions very reluctantly, after six years of self-examination, but that makes the conclusions no less certain. On the contrary, it makes them much more certain. Let me state once again that this is a humanistic philosophy drawn from modern biological data, not from religious creeds. (263)

All laws are unenforceable to some extent; we cannot have a policeman on every corner. Tax cheating is far more widespread than illegal abortion used to be; nonetheless we do not eliminate tax laws or consider them unenforceable–and the loss of human life is a vastly more weighty consideration than loss of revenue. (267)

The American public has not yet given "informed consent" to laissez-faire abortion… A consensus on abortion can be reached only if the issues are examined coolly in a secular, non-inflammatory fashion, in the light of all that we know of the biological data. Neither the Right-to-Life nor the Pro-Choice crusaders are doing much to get on with this type of essential nationwide discussion. (271)

I don't know whether Dr. Nathanson ever visited the Abort73 website, but I'm fairly certain he would have found it largely in sync with his own vision for creating broad secular consensus through an examination of the biological evidence. Far too often, as Dr. Nathanson points out, "battle cries and stereotypes" are passed off as arguments (162), leaving us with "coat-hanger pins" on one side, and "roses and bottled fetuses" on the other (173). It's only when we get past the slogans to look at the actual evidence that we'll ever make any headway, and that of course, is what Abort73 is all about.

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. Subscribe to Michael's Substack for his latest articles and recordings. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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