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The Doctor Who Saw What He Did

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The good doctor could have stepped out of a Louis Auchincloss short story. A fashionable but conscientious professional on the Upper West Side, his ideas, like his Brooks Brothers suits, were tailored to fit in. His ideals were those of the enlightened, modern urban America of his time, which was the mid- to late 20th century. And he was always doing what he could to further them.

The doctor's political, medical and social convictions were much what one would have expected of a New York liberal, as clear as his curriculum vitae. The son of a secular Jewish ob/gyn, he would follow his prominent father's footsteps, graduate from McGill Medical College in Montreal, and start his practice in Manhattan. He was a quick study, whether absorbing the latest medical knowledge or political trend. Especially when it came to abortion.

Having no convictions about the sacredness of human life, he was defenseless against its growing and increasingly legal appeal. Indeed, he was soon a leader in Pro-Choice ranks.

By his own count, Bernard Nathanson, M.D., was responsible for some 75,000 abortions -- without a twinge of conscience intervening. Not back then. Not when he picketed a New York City hospital in his campaign for the legalization of abortion in New York state. Preaching what he practiced, Dr. Nathanson became a tireless spokesman for NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

As director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in Manhattan, where he routinely performed abortions and taught others to do the same, Dr. Nathanson knew of what he spoke. And never grew tired of rationalizing it. He wasn't destroying human life but just "an undifferentiated mass of cells." He was performing a social service, really. He was on a humanitarian mission.

Then something happened. The something was quite specific -- the newest EKG and ultrasound imagery. Always a follower of the latest scientific evidence, he couldn't deny what he was seeing. Political theory is one thing, but facts are facts.

By 1974, soon after Roe v. Wade had opened the way to his dream of abortion-on-demand, his eyes were opened. Literally. As he put it, "There is no longer any serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy." He changed his beliefs and his ways -- and sides.

I can identify. When Roe v. Wade was first pronounced, I welcomed it. As a young editorial writer in Pine Bluff, Ark., I believed the court's assurances that its ruling was not blanket permission for abortion, but a carefully crafted, limited decision applicable only in some exceptional cases. Which was all a lot of hooey, but I swallowed it, and regurgitated it in editorials.

The right to life need not be fully respected from conception on, I explained, but grew with each stage of fetal development until a full human being was formed. I went into all this in an extended debate in the columns of the Pine Bluff Commercial with a young Baptist minister in town named Mike Huckabee.

Yes, I'd been taught by Mary Warters in her biology and genetics courses at Centenary that human life was one unbroken cycle from life to death, and the code to its development was present from its microscopic origins. But I wanted to believe human rights developed differently, especially the right to life. My reasons were compassionate. Who would not want to spare mothers carrying the deformed? Why not just allow physicians to eliminate the deformity? I hadn't yet come across Flannery O'Connor's warning that tenderness leads to the gas chambers.

Then something happened. I noticed that the number of abortions in the country had begun to mount year by year -- into the millions. Perfectly healthy babies were being aborted for socio-economic reasons. Among ethnic groups, the highest proportions of abortions were being performed on black women. (Last I checked, 37 percent of American abortions were being done on African-American women, though they make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population.)

Eugenics was showing its true face again. And it wasn't pretty.

Abortion was even being touted as a preventative for poverty. All you had to do, after all, was eliminate the poor. They were, in the phrase of the advanced, Darwinian thinkers of the last century, surplus population.

With a little verbal manipulation, any crime can be rationalized, even promoted. Verbicide precedes homicide. The trick is to speak of fetuses, not unborn children. So long as the victims are a faceless abstraction, anything can be done to them. Just don't look too closely at those sonograms. We are indeed strangely and wondrously made.

By now the toll has reached some 50 million aborted babies in America since 1973. That is not an abstract theory. It is fact, and facts are stubborn things. Some carry their own imperatives with them. And so, like Dr. Nathanson, I changed my mind, and changed sides.

There is something about simple human dignity, whether the issue is civil rights in the 1960s or abortion and euthanasia today, that in the end will not be denied. And it keeps asking: Whose side are you on? Life or death?

Long before he died the other day at 84, Bernard Nathanson had chosen life. He became as ardent an advocate for life as he had once been for death. He wrote books and produced a film, "The Silent Scream," laying out the case for the unborn, and for humanity. He would join the Catholic Church in 1996 and continue to practice medicine as chief of obstetrical services at Saint Luke's-Roosevelt hospital in Manhattan.

"I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world," he told the Washington Times in 1996. But he also had sought to redeem himself. He could not have been expected to do other than he did in his younger years, given his appetite for fashionable ideas. He was, after all, only human. Which is no small or simple thing.

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