ADMITTEDLY, HE's carrying heavy moral baggage. But at 70, Dr. Bernard Nathanson is beginning life anew as a Catholic.
If personal history says anything, one can rest assured that Nathanson, who was baptized by New York Cardinal John O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral last month, will not elect to become a Catholic of the lukewarm variety. The physician has shown that he rarely does anything half way.
Not only was he in favor of legal abortion, but in the early 70s, Nathanson, an obstetrician and gynecologist, oversaw some 75,000 abortions and was a founder of the organization that later became the National Abortion Rights Action League. In 1979, convinced by scientific evidence that abortion was wrong, he wrote a book called Aborting America. It was part exposé of the abortion industry and part personal confession. He later produced The Silent Scream, a video depicting the sonogram of a live abortion, which riled abortion-rights advocates and rallied pro-lifers in the mid-80s.
Today, the former self-described Jewish atheist is a member of the Catholic Church he once fought so vociferously. He became a Catholic, he said in an interview from his office on Manhattan's swank Upper East Side, largely for personal reasons that transcend the abortion issue. “I finally recognized that time is running out [on my life],” said Nathanson, the famous horn-rimmed glasses perched on a face that appears much younger than his 70 years.
The walls of his office between Lexington and Park Avenues feature photos of the famous, including former President Ronald Reagan, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, and the not-so-famous, including hundreds of pictures of babies he has delivered. On one wall is a Doonesbury cartoon featuring a blistering satirical attack on The Silent Scream, an indication that he can accept criticism with good humor. Even so, he acknowledges that he has rarely felt comfortable in life, despite his own professional success.
Catholicism, he said, provides “the relief of existential angst” that he has felt much of his life and “the knowledge that I am not alone on a cooling rock in a vacant universe.” A child of the enlightenment, he was raised by secularized Canadian Jews who encouraged his professional and intellectual achievements. But, “we were left without the mystery,” he said.
Perhaps most telling, he said the Church offers the promise of forgiveness. “The moral baggage that I carry into the next world would have been unbearable without it.”
That baggage, he said, includes his well-publicized involvement in abortions. But it also includes personal struggles, including three divorces and a difficult relationship with his adult son. “My personal life has not been a paradigm of virtue. My major problem was my pride and vanity. I felt it was weighing me down and interfering with virtually everything of consequence,” he said
Nathanson's recent book, The Hand of God (Regnery Press) details his religious conversion and includes a frank description of his life, including impregnating two women to whom he was not married. In one case, he personally performed an abortion that ended the life of his own unborn child.
In the circles he travels, he acknowledged, conversion from secularism to Catholicism is a rarity. While he has heard no expressions of disrespect for his decision, there is, he's sure, puzzlement about his decision. “People tend to be very wary and tiptoe very gingerly around me, because I've [gone through] conversions which are inexplicable in normative terms. I guess they just stop and say, ‘there goes Nathanson again.’” But, he has concluded, “each of us has to look after our own souls.”
He emphasized that his baptism is not intended as a slight against Judaism. “I will always be Jewish. I will leave nothing behind,” he said, noting that he can still speak decent Yiddish. But, he added, his Jewish heritage largely consisted of an ethnic identity, not an observant religious practice.
Nathanson's road to the Church began about five years ago during extended discussions with Father John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who lives in a community near Princeton University. The conversion was set into motion by the physician's scholarly interest in morality and religious questions. Then it grew deeper. “It has moved by grace over time, from intellectual curiosity to something more personal in his case,” said McCloskey. “A lot of what I did was as a facilitator, opening up the treasures of Catholicism to him.”
The priest encouraged Nathanson to read, including a book by Dr. Karl Stern called The Pillar of Fire. Dr. Stern, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, was, ironically “the best teacher I ever had,” recalled Nathanson, a McGill graduate. At the time he attended McGill, he had no idea that his Jewish professor had converted to Catholicism. He saw the book as a sign leading him to the Church.
Another sign was his impression of Catholic pro-lifers he had met through years of speaking at conferences. “I wondered how those people could be so loving for a constituency from whom they would never get a thanks,” he said.
Today, Nathanson is both optimistic and pessimistic about the problem of abortion in this country. Apossible solution, first outlined in Aborting America, would be the adoption of fetuses while they are still in the womb by placing them with host mothers who would agree to bring them to term. “It may be technologically feasible soon,” he said, noting, however, that that proposal is “a solution, not an answer.”
He said that the argument over late term ‘partial-birth abortions’ is really a discussion of infanticide.
He said that the argument over late term “partial-birth abortions” is really a discussion of infanticide, although the term is rarely used. “It's almost too much to bear that we find ourselves down so far as to find that acceptable,” he said. “Violence, pornography, and capital punishment also contribute to society's malaise,” he said. “It's all the same primary tumor. There are all kinds of issues that will have to be addressed eventually.”
For much of the past two years, he has spent time reflecting on many of these issues as a doctoral student in bioethics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He gave up his medical practice and dropped everything to pursue his interest in moral concerns surrounding medical issues. “I felt I had to do it. It was like my becoming a Catholic,” he said.
One of his classes featured The Eclipse of Reason, a video produced by Nathanson that strongly states his pro-life views. He expected that students might be repelled by it; he was surprised to find that his colleagues said that the video caused them to look at the abortion issue in a new way.
When it came to medical issues, his professors at Vanderbilt often called upon him for expert advice. Just a few weeks after his baptism, he received his doctorate from Vanderbilt. He is unsure about what he wants to do next.
“The world is not waiting for another Park Avenue gynecologist,” he said. “Maybe (I'm moving to) a bigger canvas infused with religious belief.… Maybe I'll be of more use to the moral community,” he said, noting that he may have a greater impact now that he is a Christian. It's something he feels that he has been called to for a long time.
Asked about how he felt after his baptism, he said there were no great spiritual revelations or mystical feelings. “It was a speed bump, not a jolt. I've been running towards Jesus Christ all my life,” he said. Then he quickly corrected himself so as not to make the impression that the journey has been along a straight and narrow path. “I've been running away from him or towards him,” he said.
Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.