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May You Rest in Peace, Dr. Nathanson

This past year has been one of personal loss for me. This past
April our founder, Father Paul Marx, O.S.B., Ph.D., passed away in the
odor of sanctity. Now we have lost another great pro-lifer—and
personal friend of mine—Dr. Bernard Nathanson.

I first met Dr. Nathanson, fittingly enough, at a 1985 conference
in Washington, D.C., organized by Father Marx. Dr. Nathanson had just
released his groundbreaking video, “The Silent Scream,”
which shows exactly what goes on in the womb during an abortion. As
the abortionist’s scalpel reaches the unborn child, the child
pulls back, then begins writhing in pain as it is dismembered. No one
who has seen the video will ever forget it—and millions have
seen it. It premiered on the television program, “Jerry Falwell
Live,“ and aired five times on major television networks shortly
after it was released. It was even shown in the White House by our
most pro-life President, Ronald Reagan.

Nathanson, of course, knew what he was describing, because he had
personally performed, by his own admission, some 15,000 abortions. But
he had not merely practiced abortion, he had promoted it as well. He
was a founding member of the National Abortion Rights Action League
(NARAL). Thus he was privy to all the lies that were used to justify
the legalization of abortion in the U.S., up to and including the
preposterous claim that 10,000 women were dying of so-called
“back-alley” abortions each year. “We just made that
number up,” he later said to me, “for propaganda

He was not, at that time, a believer. He had concluded that
abortion was wrong in precisely the same way that I had, by reflecting
on the irrefutable fact that life begins at conception and that the
fetus—“little one,” in Latin—is nothing if not
a human being. There was, because of this, a natural bond between he
and I from the beginning.

In the years that followed, our paths often crossed at pro-life
conferences. These conferences had the same effect on him as they were
having on me: we came to respect the principled pro-lifers who were
giving a voice to the voiceless with no thought of personal gain and,
in many cases, at great personal sacrifice. By 1990, Father Marx was
warning those of us who worked with him not to attempt to catechize
the man he had come to call “Bernie.” He’s not ready
yet to talk openly about matters of faith, Father said. We found out
later that Father himself was already giving his friend Bernie
instruction in the faith, and gradually bringing him to an
understanding of the beauty of the truths that it taught. It was a
long process, since as a one-time secular Jew Dr. Nathanson was not at
first inclined to view the Catholic Church as a natural home for
someone of his background.

came Father’s 1994 World Conference in Irvine, California. We
knew by then that Dr. Nathanson was moving away from the atheism of
his earlier years. After all, the talk that he was scheduled to
give was entitled “Reflections of an Ex-Abortionist and
Ex-Atheist.” But we had no idea that during the course of
that talk he was going to drop a bombshell. He was going to
swim the Tiber, and make his way to Rome sweet home. When he
announced that he had decided to become a Catholic, the audience,
which must have numbered 1,000 people, erupted in cheers.
Father Marx knew all along, of course.

Dr. Nathanson received his formal instruction in the faith in the
New York Archdiocese where he lived and had his medical practice. He
was baptized, confirmed, and received first Holy Communion in December
1996, at a Mass celebrated by the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor in
St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was on a pro-life missionary trip
abroad, but Fr. Marx, his dear friend and spiritual advisor, traveled
up to New York to be on the altar with the Cardinal that great day.

In later years the good doctor went on to get an advanced degree in
bioethics, so as to be better equipped, he told me, to argue against
those who were cheapening human life in other ways. He continued to
speak out against abortion, of course, but now spoke out against
euthanasia, stem cell research, and in-vitro fertilization as well.
The course of his studies took him to the very cutting edge of
science, where experiments that rivalled those in the novel Brave New
or of the Third Reich—were taking place.

I remember one chilling conversation that I had with him—the
year must have been 2002—in which he told me that researchers
using private funds had succeeded in growing 14-week-old fetuses in
test tubes. “What happens then?” I asked. “They all
die,” he responded, “but it may only be a matter of time
until the researchers refine their techniques and are able to bring
babies to term.”

The last time I saw him must have been in Auckland, New Zealand, at
a conference held by Family Life International. He was by that time
quite elderly, and had a cast on his foot from a medical mishap, but
had nevertheless suffered through the 14-hour-flight Down Under to
attend. He was determined to continue his fight against the evil of

Dr. Nathanson was painfully aware of how many lives he had
extinguished—how could he not have been, since it was a constant
feature of his talks—yet he continued to publicly confess his
great sins in this way until the end of his life. It was, for him, a
kind of atonement. And it went on for 25 long years.

Those of
us who trust in God’s mercy understand that every saint has a past,
and every sinner has a future. And Dr. Nathanson’s future is,
I am sure, with his Father in Heaven, where he will rejoice in the
company of those little ones on whose behalf he worked—once he
realized the truth—so long and arduously.

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