Giants are interesting creatures, and Dr. Bernard Nathanson was a giant. He was also the smallest man in the world, depending on who was critiquing him, and what phase of his career the individual was examining. He certainly was a hero to the pro-abort camp early on, and the most misguided man in the world to pro-lifers. Then all of that changed when Dr. Nathanson had his epiphany.
I was a boy back then, nine years old in 1969 when he founded NARAL, twelve on the day that Roe v Wade was handed down. At this moment, I’m not particularly interested in Dr. Bernard Nathanson as the pro-life giant, or trophy, or mentor and guide after his conversion. I’m more interested in Dr. Nathanson as a doctor, as a fellow scientist, and how he could have lost his way, and how he found his way.
We can be so smug, scientists and physicians—so in love with our technology. So superior. So proud.
Having a love of history, and an appreciation for its treacherous cross-currents was my salvation when I was in graduate school. Yes, I loved the state-of-the-art in molecular biology, and how that grew every couple of years. But I was also keen to know from my professors what the state of the art was when they were graduate students, how they came to understand science and the tools through which they developed their understanding of life and its mechanisms.
It filled me with awe and respect for them, how they worked with such comparatively primitive tools and discovered the most fundamental realities. It showed me how much we younger scientists take for granted, and how we rarely step outside of our own technological frame of reference to appreciate the manner in which our predecessors blazed the trail for us.
So Dr. Nathanson’s has been an interesting story for me. In the late 1960′s, there were many in the field of embryology who taught that a new human organism came into being at fertilization. This was, in a sense, a no-brainer. But physicians and scientists don’t always see things the same way. What jumps out at me was Dr. Nathanson’s flawed understanding of human embryology that justified for him his pro-abortion orientation.
Though many maintained that the human embryo was human, there was a fraud that was perpetuated for over 100 years, as seen here in the fraudulent drawings of Dr. Ernst Haeckel, that led many into honestly believing that the embryo was not fully human.
Haeckel was an early proponent of Darwinian evolution who maintained that organisms go through the various evolutionary stages (phylogeny) as they develop into mature form (ontogeny), recapitulating their evolutionary heritage. Even I was educated in high school and college in the famous mantra, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”
The big problem was that Haeckel fudged his drawings to make the organisms appear to look more similar than they actually are; all to make the appearance of recapitulation look more valid.
Haeckel lied, and that lie evolved into the cornerstone of justifying abortion because the embryo was still in its fish stage, or amphibian stage. Read a good treatment here.
So, Haeckel lied, and babies died. His deception, meant to advance what he believed to be a greater truth, has led to the slaughter of millions.
It wasn’t until the advent of fetoscopy and sonograms that Dr. Nathanson could move beyond Haeckel’s static (and fraudulent) illustrations. Technology allowed him to see what his ill-formed scientific imagination could not fathom.
A baby sucking its thumb.
A beating heart.
A silent scream.
I think of the Gospel on Easter Sunday with Peter and John in the tomb. John saw and believed. Peter was befuddled, slower to catch on.
I think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He saw and believed.
Dr. Nathanson saw and believed. Like Paul, his turnaround was as powerful for good as his previous state was for ill.
It wasn’t religion that did it for Dr. Nathanson. It was technology revealing undeniable truth.
Dr. Nathanson was first and foremost a man of science. He was guided by reason, and when reason told him that he was mistaken, he followed the truth. He did so knowing that he would be reviled, but that didn’t stop him.
It was a crushing blow to the other side to have Dr. Nathanson defect. Their argument was that pro-lifers were motivated by religious extremism, and then Dr. Nathanson produced The Silent Scream. Religious conversion would be some years yet to come. He was reviled. Knowing how Dr. Nathanson’s intellect was formed, the fraudulent data that went into it, helps me to see how he could have been pro-abortion. He honestly didn’t believe he was killing a human.
I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity to meet him, to share a meal with him, to see more of the world of the 1960′s through his eyes. In some ways, we came to pro-life education and activism by the same route: it was the technology and data that did it for me too. I always accepted the humanity of the embryo, but the mountains of scientific literature on STD’s and post-abortive sequelae cry out for scientists and physicians to give them a voice in the public square.
I would have liked to have shared experiences with this elder scientist and learned from him. Now I’ll need to wait a bit longer before that meeting. Until then, a man who helped unleash one of the greatest calamities to befall humanity, and lived to repent of it, equipping the pro-life movement to fight for its destruction, has passed from among us and into eternity. For all that he did to stop this evil, for his road from atheistic Jew to faith-filled Catholic, Dr. Nathanson was a giant.
But he also seemed more to be a good and decent man.