The Hand of God

The Hand of God
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For 20 years I showed my ethics students Silent Scream, a moving anti-abortion film narrated by the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who died earlier this year.  He not only clearly described the abortion procedure (using an ultrasound) but shared his sorrow for playing a major role in legalizing it in 1972.  When he made the film he professed no religious faith, merely a humanistic concern for taking innocent life.  But in time, as he joined various anti-abortion endeavors, he came to faith and joined the Catholic Church.  To explain his spiritual journey, including his early commitment to abortion-on-demand, and to evaluate the evil of killing unborn babies, he wrote The Hand of God:  A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind Washington (Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1996).  “This book,” he said, “will be semi-autobiographical, using myself as a paradigm for the study of the systematic fission and demise of one system of morality, no matter how fragmented, fatuous, and odious, and the painful acquisition of another more coherent, more reliable, and less atomistic one” (p. 3).

His father, a brilliant obstetrician, “was a formidable, dominant force in my life and in many ways forged the ruthless, nihilistic pagan attitudes and beliefs that finally drove me to unleash—with a handful of co-conspirators—the abortion monster” (p. 5).  Though nominally Jewish, the Nathansons (father and son) were thoroughly secularized, much attuned to the relativism of modernity.  Highly intelligent, Nathanson moved easily through Cornell University and McGill Medical School.  Importantly, at McGill he “forged a strong, even compelling teacher-student relationship” (p. 45) with Professor Karl Stern, an alluring lecturer who had left Judaism to enter the Catholic Church in 1943—a journey beautifully portrayed in The Pillar of Fire.  While unaware of this at the time, 20 years later, “floundering in the wake of my hegemony of the abortion clinic and the doubts that were beginning to crack my own pillars of certainty,” Nathanson learned “that even as I had spoken to him on so many occasion about so many other things, he [Stern] possessed a secret I had been searching for all my life—the secret of the peace of Christ” (p. 46)

While at McGill Nathanson impregnated a young woman.  To eliminate the problem his father sent him money to kill the baby, and he slipped easily “into the satanic world of abortion” (p. 58).  Years later he would impregnate another woman (who begged to give birth to the child) and performed, without remorse, the abortion himself, killing his own child.  “I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances, even teachers.  There was never a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme confidence that I was doing a major service to those who sought me out” (p. 61).  Practicing medicine at Women’s Hospital in New York, he came to see abortion as a valuable service, particularly for the poor, making life better for the disadvantaged.

His commitment to abortion rights led to a relationship with Larry Lader, an “ardent feminist and a great admirer of Margaret Sanger” who “was obsessed with abortion” (p. 87).  Nathanson and Lader teamed up to legalize abortion, forming the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and other action committees.  Manipulating the media, recruiting ideological feminists and liberal clergy, fabricating statistics, making emotional appeals to pity and equity, they effectively orchestrated a repeal of New York’s abortion laws in 1970.  A year later Nathanson became director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, an abortion clinic launched with the assistance of the Rev. Howard Moody and his Clergy Consultation Referral Service.  He continued practicing obstetrics and gynecology and toured the country urging politicians to legalize abortion (unexpectedly accomplished through judicial fiat in Roe v. Wade in 1972) and “was known as the abortion king” (p. 124).

While promoting the cause, however, new technologies (preeminently the ultrasound) confronted and troubled Nathanson with the stark truth of abortion.  To actually see the fetus in the womb revealed its fully human form, and he began to see the vapidity of all the assorted pro-abortion arguments he’d earlier espoused.  He publically expressed his doubts and performed his last abortion in 1979, persuaded “that there was no reason for an abortion at any time; this person in the womb is a living human being, and we could not continue to wage war against the most defenseless of human beings” (p. 128).  He clearly describes pre-natal developments, insisting “we have a virtually unbroken series of quantifiable, noncontingent, scientifically verifiable and infinitely reproducible events that signifies the beginning of a new human life” (p. 138).

His growing pro-life convictions led to an alignment with pro-life people—virtually all deeply religious and unusually at ease with themselves.  He was amazed at the “sheer intensity of the love and prayer” evident in those who gathered to protest outside abortion clinics.  His convictions regarding the sanctity of life, coupled with his amazement at Christians witnessing to their faith, led to an openness to the Lord and Giver of life.  So, “for the first time in my entire adult life, I began to entertain seriously the notion of God—a god who problematically had led me through the proverbial circles of hell, only to show me the way to redemption and mercy through His grace.  The thought violated every eighteenth-century certainty I had cherished; it instantly converted my past into a vile bog of sin and evil; it indicted me and convicted me of high crimes against those who had loved me , and against those whom I did not even know; and simultaneously—miraculously—it held out a shimmering sliver of Hope to me, in the growing belief that Someone had died for my sins and my evil two millennia ago” (pp. 193-194).

Now he is “no longer alone” (p. 196).  The lost is found.  The blind now sees.  The sinner’s saved.  With his mentor Karl Stern, Nathanson has discovered, as Stern wrote in a letter, that that “‘toward Him we had been running, or from Him we had been running away, but all the time He had been in the center of things’” (p. 196).  Along with Nathan’s earlier treatises—Aborting America and The Abortion Papers—this book provides invaluable insight into the monumental battle between the cultures of life and death.

Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.