February 21: Two-year anniversary of Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s death

While I was perusing pro-life news outlets this Thursday, Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s name came up quite a few times. He’s an important figure in the abortion debate, especially since he played a crucial part to both sides. I certainly knew who he was. But I also thought he was just some figure who died years ago.

220px-NathansonIt turns out that he hasn’t been dead for very long. February 21, 2013 actually marks only the two-year anniversary of his death from cancer. But regardless of whether he’s been dead two years or two decades, Dr. Nathanson is a remarkable figure.

Dr. Nathanson was a co-founder of NARAL, which at the time stood for National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. He was also the organization’s first president. Nathanson was crucial to framing abortion as a medical issue rather than a moral issue, all while coming up with “some sexy, catchy slogans to capture public opinion.”

But changing the conversation about abortion and coming up with “some sexy, catchy slogans” was not the only way in which Dr. Nathanson got the public’s attention. The number of women who died from illegal abortion was actually falsified by Nathanson, for, once again, the sake of generating public support for abortion. In his 1979 book, Aborting America, Dr. Nathanson said this:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL, we generally emphasized the frame of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter, it was always 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year. I confess that I knew that the figures were totally false and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.

Not only were such numbers a flat-out lie, but they were also knowingly promoted for the sake of doing one thing: making abortion legal. Dr. Nathanson frames this so clearly in the last sentence. The National Right to Life provided this quote from an article which has other helpful information as to how to respond to the argument that women will die without legalized abortion.

Dr. Nathanson was an abortionist and the director for the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), which was the world’s largest abortion clinic (he was also the director there). He presided over 60,000 abortions at the CRASH. He also personally instructed those who performed 15,000 more abortions, and he performed 5,000 abortions himself. He even aborted his own child.

Only a year after Roe v. Wade, though, Dr. Nathanson began to have doubts about abortion. By 1980, medical technology convinced him to no longer provide abortions. He then came to dedicate himself to the pro-life movement and correcting the falsehoods he had helped spread. has a post by Live Action’s own Sarah Terzo, which includes a quote from Dr. Bernard Nathanson as to why he became pro-life:

I ran the largest abortion clinic in the world for 2 years. I had no conflicts whatsoever at the time I was doing the abortions. I changed my mind because the new scientific data which we were getting from advanced technology persuaded me that we could not indiscriminately continue to slaughter what was demonstrably a human being.

That quote is from 1986, 27 years ago. A man who was involved in over 75,000 abortions came to see that science shows that the unborn child is “demonstrably a human being.” Yet, even with such technology as we have today, people still sadly deny the humanity of the unborn child right in front of them.


In 1984, Dr. Nathanson produced the famous documentary The Silent Scream, which graphically shows a twelve-week-old baby being aborted. Through new fetal imagery technology, Dr. Nathanson effectively portrayed the humanity of the unborn child, as well as demonstrated that an abortion is surely murdering a human being.

Dr. Nathanson changed his mind on abortion not for religious reasons, but rather for scientific ones. He was born Jewish, though he professed to being an atheist and even was so for a time after his change of heart on abortion. He eventually converted to Catholicism, though, and was baptized and received into the Church in 1996.

In 1996, Dr. Nathanson wrote his autobiography,The Hand of God, which details his experiences and his journey of becoming a pro-life activist after advocating for and promoting abortion.

Bernard Nathanson is undeniably an important figure in the pro-life movement, on whom much has been written. On the day of his death in 2011, LifeNews published an article to remember him, which quotes Live Action president Lila Rose. A week after his death, a friend of Nathanson, Robert P. George, also wrote a piece, which contains a lot of helpful experiences and information in learning about the kind of man Nathanson really was. Priests for Life has a page with several links about the doctor as well. There is also a short video of a confession from Dr. Nathanson. One of the places it can be found is through Bound 4 Life.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson truly has a lasting legacy as a founder of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America. People still shout his slogans and revert to his argument that women will die without legalized abortion, that the issue is a medical, not a moral one. They are not laughing as he was, though, and they are so very blind to the truth. Meanwhile, Dr. Nathanson himself died a pro-life and Catholic convert. If he is able to reform and have a conversion, truly anyone is.

  • Great article. Bernard Nathanson was someone who strongly motivated me to become involved in the pro-life movement. As a college student, I watched “The Silent Scream.” He also produced an even more troubling film shortly thereafter entitled “The Eclipse of Reason” (available at That film actually showed a 2nd trimester abortion and it features an excellent intro piece with Charlton Heston. In spite of its age, it’s probably the most disturbing, heartbreaking, and graphic film I’ve ever seen.

    • Rebecca Downs

      Thanks, Nick! Yeah, I’m glad he was able to motivate all kinds of people. And yeah, it’s powerful stuff. He really spoke to me in the sense that once he got it, he really got it. He then sought to really use his talents to educate people and get the message out there. And effective man, for both sides, ultimately the right one!

  • Basset_Hound

    Bernard Nathanson was a hero who proved the reality of redemption.

  • Sometimes I wonder how people like Nathanson and Roe etc feel internally, having changed their stance on this issue, but were also personally responsible for the legalization of this. I’m not trying to criticize them, and thank God for thier change of heart, I just wonder if, even though God has forgiven them, if it was ever possible for them to forgive themselves?

    • Rebecca Downs

      You know, I totally understand what you’re saying. I pretty much agree with exactly what you’re saying. If I did such a thing, I would feel like a piece of you know what. And its sad for Nathanson especially that he died before the results of his promotion of abortion were overturned. But, it takes a strong person to have a conversion as it is, and the two persons finding Jesus at some point in their lives I think really helped. Not only are they courageous then for their change of heart, but their ability to forgive themselves, for which I assume/hope they were able to do. And the thing that always astounds me is that it may be a big sin to society/them, but it’s all the same to God, who is so quickly and wonderfully able to forgive!

  • akoski75

    I’ve watched the Silent Scream and the Eclipse of Reason. Both of them resonated with me. Who better to make a case against abortion than one with first hand knowledge?! Sad to say that I’ve also shared these videos with individuals who identify themselves as being ‘Pro-Choice’ and they reply that these videos are fake and have been ‘debunked’. The willful ignorance of some individuals shocks me sometimes.

    • Rebecca Downs

      “Willful ignorance” indeed. You know, it’s also sadly ironic though that people use his catch phrases and numbers which he used as a lie, and yet not the truth… and they’re not laughing while they do so like Nathanson was…

      Selective understanding is an astounding thing sometimes…

  • Leaven for the Loaf

    Thanks for a valuable post. I’ll refer my own readers to it for background on Dr. Nathanson.