He is 58, and if ever someone looked the part of a doctor, it is Bernard N. Nathanson.
Neither overly tall nor overly short, he is solidly built, with the slight softness that comes so often with late middle age.
Nathanson’s hair is smoky gray; his thick glasses are so sensibly non-ornamental they seem almost to blend into his face. Deep creases line his forehead and frown lines cross his brow. The mouth is set, too, in firm furrows.
Nathanson reads Joyce, plays chess, jumps horses. He is seldom rattled, even when people call him a fanatic, a turncoat, an attention-seeker. Nathanson stays calm in all cases. So sure and steady is his voice that Nathanson probably would not cause panic if he cried “Fire!” in the proverbial crowded theater.
Here is a man who could diagnose cancer without inciting dread. Here is a man who could terminate pregnancies, 5,000 of them by his own count. Here is a man who was among the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League, a man who, as head of what he has called “the largest abortion clinic in the Western World,” oversaw 60,000 abortions.
And here is a man who could flip-flop to become the leading medical spokesman of the right-to-life movement, a man who says now that abortion is murder, pure and simple. And “except in the most compelling circumstances,” he said, “I’m opposed to killing, period.”
It is Nathanson’s emotionless voice that narrates “The Silent Scream,” the 28-minute sonogram, which uses sound waves to produce a picture of the inside of the uterus, depiction of an abortion that many say galvanized the abortion debate to its present high-fever pitch.
Last month the Reagan Administration announced it would seek the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand. No one could welcome this move more than Nathanson.
“My name is Bernard N. Nathanson,” he intones in his introduction to the millions of men, women and children who have seen “The Silent Scream” on television, in church and community meeting rooms and even in public schools. “I’m a physician, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist. And I think I’ve had a passing experience in matters of abortion.”
Recalls Reagan Speech
“Back about January of last year,” Nathanson recalled, President Reagan made a speech to the National Assn. of Religious Broadcasters suggesting that a fetus feels “long and agonizing pain” during an abortion.
The speech drew immediate exception from, among others, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which issued a policy statement challenging the President’s viewpoint. Nathanson was among 26 college members who issued an immediate counterstatement supporting the President. Conflicting claims continued, Nathanson said, “until I mulled it over and thought there’s only one way we can resolve this issue, and that’s by photographing an abortion, beginning to end.”
Soon Nathanson was talking to another physician about the possibility of filming an abortion. “I’ve helped a lot of younger doctors in my time in various ways,” he said. One such physician was working in two abortion clinics, and Nathanson approached him about documenting the procedures.
Nathanson offered to supply the film technician and the ultrasound equipment. Nathanson said the abortion patients were told of the filming. Assured complete anonymity and unrecognizability, they signed consent forms, documents Nathanson later destroyed.
To the doctor, Nathanson said, “I don’t expect you to do anything except your abortions.” And, Nathanson added, “I don’t know what we’re going to see on this. Maybe we’ll see nothing; maybe we’ll see a lot.”
What they saw, Nathanson and the other physicians who examined the film agreed, “looked pretty interesting. The baby looked like it was jumping away from the instrument, like it was thrashing around, and this is not the kind of activity we normally see.”
By now a star speaker on the anti-abortion lecture circuit, Nathanson began “taking the films around to the various pro-life groups I was addressing.” Even without the tapes, his schedule was full: “I was every weekend on the road, speaking on abortion.” And the first time his sonogram abortion tapes were publicly shown, “in Schenectady, (N.Y.,) I believe,” they were “an instant smash.”
Word traveled fast. Nathanson was approached by California documentarian Donald S. Smith to use a portion of the abortion sonogram in Smith’s latest film, “Conceived in Liberty.” At first Nathanson hesitated. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with these videotapes, but I don’t see why I should give them to you to put in your film.’ ” But Smith prevailed. “Conceived in Liberty” was shown at that year’s National Right to Life convention in Kansas City, and so was Nathanson’s sonogram.
“His film got a good reception,” Nathanson said, “but my videotapes--you couldn’t get enough people in the room. The walls were bulging.”
Nathanson said he broached the idea of a “film around the videotapes”; Smith said “Silent Scream” was made at his initiative. In either case, a private, limited partnership provided the $60,000-$70,000 to produce a film that shows, as Nathanson narrates, “for the first time . . . a child being torn apart, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist.”
Nathanson said he thought of the name, and ad-libbed the film’s dramatic commentary. “There was no script. I winged it.”
‘Silent Scream’ Distributed
“Silent Scream” vaulted to national prominence when the President made reference to it in an address to the 70,000 or so participants in a national “march for life” in Washington Jan. 22. Soon copies of “The Silent Scream” were being distributed to the entire Congress, as well as all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Versions of the film have been prepared in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese, and translations in Swedish, Polish and Russian are pending.
“We’d like to get it behind the Iron Curtain. They really need it there,” Donald Smith said from his Anaheim office. “We’re busy little bees here.”
Recently, the Rev. Jerry Falwell ordered 50,000 copies of “The Silent Scream” to distribute among his ministries. Although each copy retails for $100, Smith said his operation is “still in the hole” because of production, publicity, advertising and distribution costs. A second Smith-Nathanson sonogram film collaboration, labeled with the working title “Silent Scream II,” is scheduled for release in early January. The new film, Nathanson has disclosed, will include an interview with “an actual abortion”: that is to say, the alleged survivor of an alleged abortion.
To the surprise of no one involved in the project, “Silent Scream” has, from the very moment it became public, generated enormous controversy. Critics have taken exception with the entire film, charging that the abortion procedure shown on the sonogram involves a later-term pregnancy than the 12-week fetus the film purports to depict. Its sponsors have in turn produced experts who say they will verify the 12-week fetal development. The critics also question whether a first-trimester fetus possesses the nerve structure required to feel pain, as Nathanson persistently implies or states outright.
Film Has Its Critics
“Silent Scream” has been called sensationalistic, distorted and filled with misrepresentations. Abortion advocates take issue with Nathanson’s habit of referring to the attending physician as “the abortionist,” and his repeated description of the fetus as “the child,” or “this little person.” They fault the film’s eerie music sound track and its frequent cuts to grisly shots of aborted fetuses.
“Emotional pornography” is how former National Organization for Women President Judy Goldsmith has described the film.
“A master PR man” is what Lawrence Lader, Nathanson’s NARAL co-founder, said of his former colleague. “He has seized on a hell of a gimmick here, and he does it brilliantly.” Nathanson, he said, “was clever enough to become news.”
But Nathanson said his fervent embracing of the anti-abortion cause is no such thing. His is a reasoned conversion, he maintains. “It wasn’t an epiphany. It was the product of a long period of reflection and increasing doubt, and it was just the accumulating scientific evidence that finally won me over.” Indeed, Nathanson said the very same sonographic technology that permitted the production of “Silent Scream” was reflective of the scientific developments that enabled him to switch from pro-choice advocate to anti-abortion defender. In the 1970s, Nathanson said, when he was running New York’s Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, abortion was merely “bloodless, utilitarian problem solving” for him. “A woman had an unplanned pregnancy; all you did was wipe it out.”
That was before the development of “ultrasound, electronic fetal heart monitoring apparatus, fetoscopes and all the rest of it,” Nathanson said. There was no moral issue involved in abortion in Nathanson’s mind, and, for that matter, the soon-to-be aborted fetus was “just tissue.”
Medically and academically, abortion was a non-issue when Bernard N. Nathanson followed in his father’s footsteps at Montreal’s McGill University Medical College. “Nobody did abortions in those days,” he said. “We were never trained to do abortions in medical school, or residency for that matter.”
Girlfriend Has Abortion
But as Nathanson has written in his book, “Aborting America,” his experience in medical school when his girlfriend became pregnant was part of what opened his eyes to the issue of abortion. Nathanson’s father, his ongoing role model, and, at 91, still a practicing New York gynecologist, gave him the $500 for an illegal abortion. “There was a pool of clotting blood on the cab,” Nathanson wrote of the aftermath of the procedure. “She was ashen and trembling violently.” The relationship broke up soon thereafter.
Nathanson, by then twice divorced, was among those present when NARAL came into being in 1967 in Lawrence Lader’s living room. As head of NARAL’s medical committee, he went on to run an efficient, profitable abortion clinic and was doing “a great deal of speaking, a great deal of traveling” pertaining to the abortion issue. Nathanson was the kind of doctor in the early 1970s to whom women’s health activists would refer patients.
But even then, even as abortion was legalized nationally in 1973 and its proponents came to be viewed less as outcasts--even then, Nathanson said, “privately, I did have doubts, increasing as the years 1973-1977 went by.” Nathanson was still performing abortions in 1974 when he voiced some of those doubts in “Deeper Into Abortion,” an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. “My own mechanism of denial failed and I began to have very serious doubts as to what we were doing here.”
Nathanson resigned from NARAL in 1975. In 1977 he caused an uproar at a Manhattan hospital when he physically attempted to prevent a late-term abortion from being performed on a woman who had been diagnosed as carrying a deformed fetus. Not long thereafter, Nathanson penned “Aborting America” (subtitled “A Case Against Abortion”) and started on the circuit for the anti-abortion effort.
No Religious Convictions
Nathanson said that his conversion was moral and medical, but in no way was it religious. In fact, though he lauds Pope John Paul II as “a remarkable man” and describes a recent meeting with the Pope as “an inexpressible privilege,” Nathanson said he is an atheist. “Sure, I’m Jewish, in the sense that I have a Jewish heritage and traditions, but I don’t believe in God. Absolutely not.”
As a defender and practitioner of abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nathanson had been a bit on the outskirts of mainstream medicine. “Politically,” he said, “it was unheard of. It was really the most permissive sort of medical politics to get involved with espousing permissive abortion in 1968. Regardless of the rest of the political climate in this country, the doctors were still a pretty conservative lot. And I was really made a pariah then.”
Now he had leaped quite publicly to the opposite side of the fence. “This is not the city in which to do that,” Nathanson said. “This is a very liberal city with strong pro-abortion sentiments. So I lost a number of patients.”
And colleagues. “A lot of doctors got very . . . well, they perceived this as a betrayal.” He has a somewhat lofty historical interpretation of this phenomenon: “I think I was regarded in much the same way that Roosevelt was regarded by his peers, as a traitor to his class.”
To be sure, some of Nathanson’s past associates do see him in such a light. But none of them would speak for attribution.
One, also a New York gynecologist, said “Bernie doesn’t have a friend in the medical community--and he has an awful lot of enemies.”
Nathanson’s wife of 20 years, Adelle, has said that she, too, took issue with her husband’s work performing abortions. Now Adelle Nathanson works alongside her husband in his anti-abortion activities and said she is “quite delighted” by his position.
Within anti-abortion circles, Nathanson has become a definite celebrity. He has met with the Pope, met with the President. A recent “Doonesbury” comic strip (now framed and hanging in his office, not far from the pictures of Nathanson and the Pope) portrayed a Nathanson look-alike narrating a “Silent Scream"-type movie. His address to the recent National Right to Life Committee convention in Washington earned Nathanson a prolonged standing ovation, prompting him to remark, “I regret my father isn’t here to hear this. He’s 91, and he’s too busy seeing patients.” Dr. Joseph Nathanson, his son said, “still refers to me as his benign metastasis.” Then, drawing still more cheers, Nathanson began, “As you may have heard, we made a film . . . .”
Of his frequent anti-abortion speaking engagements, Nathanson said he accepts expenses only, takes no honoraria and turns over the checks that are sometimes thrust at him to anti-abortion organizations. He is a star in anti-abortion surroundings, but, said Nathanson, “It isn’t me, it’s the issue, the abortion issue. I don’t confuse whatever celebrity or notoriety I seem to have achieved with what the real issue is, and that’s abortion.”
He is a reluctant celebrity, Nathanson insisted, “merely a peripheral figure . . . well, perhaps even a central figure, but a figure nonetheless. I am not the issue.”
Not that he has in any way shunned the limelight. “No,” he said, “but I must say I reject many more speaking engagements than I accept.”
And besides, Nathanson said, “As I told you, I had a moral obligation to do this. I had a moral mandate. I was obliged to be as outspoken on this side as I was on the other. I felt I had influenced a great number of people on the other side, and I felt I had to rectify the records.”
For some ardent anti-abortion activists, the fact that Nathanson was once an opponent only adds to his impact. “I don’t think it’s the personality of Bernard Nathanson, it’s the status he formerly occupied,” said Dave Andrusko, National Right to Life news editor.
But Joseph Scheidler, head of Chicago’s Pro-Life Action League, said Nathanson’s earlier prominence as a supporter of abortion forced him to work harder to “win the affection” of anti-abortion activists.
“We didn’t trust him,” Scheidler said. " . . . We thought, ‘This is the guy we’ve been picketing.’ ” Even today, said Scheidler, “he still doesn’t have 100% acceptance among pro-lifers. We don’t feel he has repented in any way. He doesn’t say ‘Gee, I killed 60,000 people and I feel bad about it.’ ”
Indeed, even the sonogram film from “The Silent Scream” did not induce great self-reproach in Nathanson regarding the thousands of abortions he himself performed. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, those are gone. No, I don’t go around carrying a huge burden of guilt, because I recognize that what I did in those years, when I was presiding over those abortions and doing them, I was proceeding in an area in which there was no moral countervailing force. I was acting out of moral ignorance.”
And morally is how Nathanson sees abortion. “It’s not a medical issue,” Nathanson contends, “any more than capital punishment is an electrical engineering issue. It’s a moral issue. It’s a political issue. It’s an issue in the public domain.”