Dr. Nathanson Conversion Story
FRONT ROYAL — When the founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) converts to Roman Catholicism and dedicates his life to the pro-life cause, heads turn.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson recently told a group at Christendom College in Front Royal the story which led to his reception into the Church by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York on Dec. 9, 1996.
Nathanson spoke of his role as a pioneer in the abortion industry, his diligence in its promotion and his retreat from the business as he realized its fundamental immorality.
Nathanson was born into a Jewish family, but was never serious about his faith and dubbed himself a “Jewish Atheist.” While studying at McGill Medical School in Montreal in the 1950s, he became aware of the “injustice” to women in the lack of availability of legal abortion. Thus his career as an abortion advocate began.
He returned to his native New York and worked solely to advance the cause of abortion with the goal of legalizing the procedure. The result of his non-stop efforts was the establishment of NARAL in 1967.
Nathanson, dubbed the “abortion king” by friends, soon opened clinics which solely performed abortions. However, after only a few years in this atmosphere, he resigned from the clinic in order to pursue other duties. He had not changed his mind about abortion but while away from it he began to look at the reality of the situation.
In the mid-70s, in the dawn of what he called the “secular epiphany,” Nathanson began to carefully examine what he saw in ultrasounds and sonograms. He demanded that he and his colleagues address the ethical and moral questions involved in abortion, which had never been done.
By 1977, Nathanson had answered his own questions. “My views had crystallized and it was clear that abortion was ethically and morally unacceptable,” he said.
In the early 80s, after much reflection on his life, Nathanson was ready to speak for the pro-life cause. He produced and distributed the film “Silent Scream” which showed a videotaped abortion procedure. However, his dramatic presentations were inspired not by religious beliefs but by the scientific evidence which undoubtedly proved the presence of a human being in the womb.
His pro-life work was good, but it was not enough — it did not take away the guilt he felt. In 1993, Nathanson found the spiritual inspiration he was lacking. He realized that he needed forgiveness which he had never sought since leaving the abortion industry and he did not know if it was possible for him to find such mercy. Nathanson knew that he could not face eternal judgment without finding forgiveness and so he turned to a priest friend who gradually helped him to see that the forgiveness and love he needed could only be found in the Church.
He met a new found solace in the words of Christ on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
His conversion process involved much reading, which he quoted familiarly to the Christendom audience. Especially beloved was the book Pillar of Fire written by Karl Stern, who has been Nathanson’s professor at McGill.
Nathanson himself recently wrote a book about his conversion experience entitled The Hand of God. It was published just prior to his acceptance into the Catholic Church.
Nathanson had always cherished Stern’s teaching and friendship, not knowing that Stern himself was going through the process of converting from Judaism to Catholicism while Nathanson was his student. Stern’s book about his own conversion was a great comfort and inspiration to Nathanson.
Although he placed a lot of emphasis on the role of spiritual reading in his conversion, Nathanson stressed that “none of the great things of life spring from the intellect — they spring from the heart.”
Ultimately, Nathanson’s heart led him to the Church, which offers forgiveness and rest to all who are searching for it.