In the decade of 60, the gynecologist and obstetrician Bernard Nathanson, a well-known activist for the legalization of abortion in the United States on the eve of the case Roe v. Wade, with more than 60 a thousand interruptions of pregnancies under his belt – including his own son’s – has made American headlines with a sea change. and unexpected in becoming one of the greatest pro-life activists who ever lived.
It all started when Nathanson, who, through his experience and militancy, came to receive the title of “king of abortion” , published a modest article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a year after the Supreme Court decision that nailed the decriminalization of the practice across the country, stating that it no longer had “ many doubts that human life exists inside the uterus from the first moments of pregnancy”. Suddenly, all the invitations to important conferences and media appearances disappeared, even though the doctor was just beginning his journey of conversion – which, before being religious, was supported by science.
Bernard Nathanson died. at 1972 years old, victim of cancer, in 1996, fifteen years after being baptized in Catholicism. More than a decade after her death, medicine has advanced enough to demonstrate that even the knowledge of the “ex-abortion king” about the conditions of the fetus inside the uterus was superficial, making the debate about the interruption of pregnancy even more intense. urgent (at the time, for example, little was known about fetal pain). Still, his account remains impactful. First published in the United States in 1996, the book “A Mão de Deus” was translated into Portuguese by the publisher Quadrante in 2020 . Read some excerpts from the book below:
At the time I ran the clinic, I was working as a gynecologist and obstetrician at the same time, delivering babies and traveling across the country to pressure legislatures and politicians to relax their laws (there was still no Roe v. Wade case). I was very busy. I almost never saw my family. He had a young son and a wife, but he was never home. I bitterly regret those years, among other things because I didn’t see my son grow up. I am immensely sorry for that, and my absence has led to serious problems with him. I was also an outcast in the medical profession. He was known as the king of abortion.
My articles on the practice, eagerly received by the progressive press (and even the progressive medical press), did not make me popular with many in my profession. The movement in my office slowed down because doctors wouldn’t refer patients to me (now that I’m pro-life, I’m exiled by the medical world again: no one talks to me). By the end of 1972, I felt exhausted and wanted to leave the clinic. I resigned.
When I left the clinic and became head of St. Luke’s Hospital, I had for the first time in years a little time and space to think. I’m sure it was no coincidence – the hand of God was there – that we were, at the same time, adopting a wonderful technique in the hospital: ultrasound, which for the first time opened a window to the uterus. We also started to observe the fetal heart with heart monitors. For the first time, I found myself thinking about what we were actually doing at the clinic. The ultrasound opened a new world. We could now really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, establish a real bond with it and love it. I started doing that.
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine presented evidence of just how potent this technology is. About ten years ago, an article published there recorded that, of ten women who went to an abortion clinic and were exposed to pictures of the fetus before the procedure, only one went ahead. Nine left the clinic pregnant, such is the strength of the bond that is formed there. I realized that I myself had been forming bonds with the unborn.
Although I continued to perform it for what seemed to me to be justified medical reasons, I was no longer sure that abortion on demand was right. In 1972, I sat down and wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine . It wasn’t a pro-life article, but in it I expressed my doubts and fears about what I was doing. I clearly stated that I had supervised over 60 a thousand deaths and said that the fetus is a life. I expressed that it is a special kind of life, but it is life nonetheless, and for that we should have reverence for it.
In that same article, I raised many indirect questions about why doctors who swore to preserve life performed abortions. I asked questions but gave few or no answers. I made the following statement: “There are no longer many doubts in my mind that human life exists inside the uterus from the first moments of pregnancy, despite considerable debates in the past about the nature of intrauterine life.”
This is a statement that today, twenty years later, must be corrected because of the new information we have about genetics and technologies of assisted reproduction. If I were writing today, I would have to say that human life begins even earlier, with the complex process of fertilization—a miracle of chemistry, physics, and molecular biology that takes place inside the fallopian tube. By the time the fertilized egg, dividing and beginning to organize itself, enters the uterus, life has been at work for at least three days. (…)
The reaction to that article, according to what I was told in the New England Journal of Medicine, was the biggest they have ever had – until today
1. They received a deluge of responses and, of course, didn’t bother opening the letters – they sent them all to me. The postman handed me huge bags of letters. It wasn’t fan mail. They came from doctors who, four years earlier, had scolded me for being an abortionist, but who had changed their minds now that abortion had grown and they were making money left and right. I was swamped with insults, threats and phone calls. I received threats against my life and that of my family. I thought to myself, “Well, I really hit the nail on the head. I have to think about it.”
I continued to have abortions throughout 1972. I had abortions and births, but increasingly I felt that the moral tension grew and became unbearable. (…) In the middle of the years 60, on one floor I put hypertonic solution on a pregnant woman of 23 weeks while, in the other, there was another pregnant woman of 60 weeks in labor, whose baby I would try to save. Nurses found themselves stuck with the same problem, the same moral dilemma. What were we doing there: saving babies or killing them?
Finally, I restricted the abortions I did to those I felt should be performed for serious reasons. That was at the end of the years 60. I included rape and incest among these serious motives. During that time, I wrote a book called Aborting America. In it, I listed several medical conditions that could justify abortion. I had two or three abortions in 1979, and then in 1979 I had my last one. She had come to the conclusion that there was no reason for abortions in any situation; the person in the womb is a living human being, and we could not go on declaring war on the most defenseless of human beings. (…)
When, at the beginning of the years 60, the ultrasound put me in front of the vision of the embryo in the womb, I simply lost my faith in abortion on demand. I didn’t fight to keep my old convictions. This change was, in its way, a clean, surgical conversion. I am by nature a person who evaluates conflicting data, weighs opposing arguments with great care, makes a decision, and then acts on it without looking back.
About 1978, however, had begun to raise more questions about abortion: what actually happens in it? I had already had several, but abortion is a blind procedure. The doctor doesn’t see what he’s doing. He inserts an instrument into the uterus, starts a motor, a vacuum is turned on and sucks something out; in the end, a mound of meat remains in a gauze collector. I wanted to know what was going on, so in 1978 I said to a friend who had fifteen, or maybe twenty, abortions a day: “Listen, Jay, do it. me a favor. Next Saturday, when you’re having all these abortions, put an ultrasound machine on the mother and record it for me.”
He did, and when he saw the films with me in an editing studio, he was so affected who never had another abortion again. Even though I hadn’t done one for five years, I was shaken to the core by what I saw. The recordings were astounding. Some weren’t of very good quality, but I selected the one that was best and started showing it at pro-life meetings across the country.
At the time, I was speaking at such meetings across the country. , and the reaction to the recording was so intense and dramatic that I ended up being approached by a man named Don Smith, who wanted to turn my recording into a film. I agreed that would be a good idea. That’s how it was made The silent scream , a work that would provoke immense fury. It first aired in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on January 3, 1985. The reaction was instantaneous. We were all on the warpath, as The silent cry posed a huge threat to the forces of abortion and increased the intensity of the war (this is not a real debate: we do not debate with each other, but we scream). For the first time, we had the technology, while they had nothing.
The silent scream showed a twelve-week-old fetus being torn apart in the womb by a combination of suction and crushing. The image was so strong that abortionists used their biggest names to denounce the tape. (…) With great cleverness, they deflected the film’s impact into an academic dead end: a dispute over whether or not the fetus feels pain during an abortion. The hook for the debate came from a comment by then-President Ronald Reagan about the pain the fetus would feel (in fact, the video never mentioned the topic of fetal pain, and the shift in focus from the brutality shown in it to this rather bland discussion. on the ability of the fetus to feel pain was a remarkably astute strategy by the adversary group). (…)
Has someone who feels little or no pain (a patient under anesthesia, a cancer victim undergoing a dorsal rhizotomy, a chronic invalid on potent analgesics) had his diminished personhood?
However, the dead end of fetal pain was not the only tactic of abortionists when launched The Silent Scream. They insisted that the video had been manipulated. Several editorials accused us of this. Finally, we sent the tape to Scotland, in the care of Dr. Ian Donald, the man who invented ultrasound and who was then quite old. He told Dr. Donald that we wanted your honest opinion: had the tape been manipulated? I told him that the New York Times had published several editorials saying it was fake.
Donald watched the tape and said it was absolutely genuine. He made a sworn statement about it (which I still have with me). I also asked Dr. Jay Kellinson, responsible for the abortion, if the film had been manipulated. “No,” he replied. “It was exactly as you see.” Despite all the controversies, I believe that The silent scream was a powerful tool. It hasn’t been able to change the minds of lawmakers, but I think – and I say this humbly – that it saved the lives of some babies. At least I hope so.
As I write this, I am a visiting professor at the Research Center for Medical Ethics at Vanderbilt University, where I am pursuing a master’s degree in bioethics, and I’m still not satisfied with the banal and unedifying answers to questions that consume me. I have been asked many times during my countless lectures around the world: “Doctor, if you knew that in the womb there was a growing human being, a helpless baby, and if you knew that it was killing with his own hands or leading trained residents who did so, how, being a doctor with a minimum of conscience and ethics, could he approve of this office for all these years?”. (…)
There is another way to tell right from wrong. “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.” However, we didn’t have that. Without the staggering value of irresistible empirical evidence, and without the direct emotional impact that perhaps cannot be produced except by the sight of a human baby, none of us had the solid inner structure of a spiritual force capable of reminding us of the enormity of the It was at this point that I, having been confronted with this empirical revolution, with this ever-increasing amount of new data, began the painful process of changing my mind about the acceptability of the abortion. I had finally accepted the paradigm shift.