The producer of the "Silent Scream" film now puts himself forward as a bioethicist. How does he respond when he's called to account for his own questionable ethics? And what does he really think about abortion prohibition, its inevitable impact on women, or the nature of secular government? We caught up to Nathanson at a recent event in Philadelphia, where even we were surprised by his answers.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson is a high-profile 'pro-life' speaker, and he's been appearing frequently at various events recently in the wake of the release of his autobiography. We were present for his presentations at both the American Life League conference in Tampa in October 1997, and at the "Meet the Providers" conference sponsored by Joe Scheidler's 'Pro-Life Action League' in New York in November 1997.
The standard presentation that Nathanson gives includes a discussion of his conversion to the 'pro-life' position, and recently, conversion to Catholicism. He announces that he's received a degree in bioethics, and it's clear that his intention is to present himself as a 'pro-life' ethical authority.
Nathanson is normally careful to phrase his reasoning in scientific terms, pointing out that when he was performing abortions, there was little to no scientific research on the human fetus, in contrast to later developments in the field of neonatology and the tools of ultrasound imaging and fetal heart monitoring. He insists that his former colleagues that haven't emulated his conversion haven't kept up with "scientific advances in the study of the human embryo and the fetus," and repeatedly uses that rationale to defend his current position.
Another key part of his standard presentation is his telling of having performed an abortion on a woman he had impregnated in 1971. He concludes his story by saying, "this was my own child I just aborted." He never discusses the ethics of having performed such a procedure on someone he had been intimate with; he always presents the story without any additional comments.
By the time we arrived at a press conference in Philadelphia on November 16, 1997, we had a number of questions prepared for Nathanson. We were curious as to how his thinking on abortion differed from that of many others in the pro-life movement. Was his reasoning truly based upon scientific methods, or would we find that, if questioned, that his thinking was identical to that of the rest of the pro-life movement? What did he think the practical outcome would be of abortion prohibition? Did he agree with the theocratic language that we'd been hearing for months from his movement, that the law of the state must reflect "God's law?"
Most importantly, how would he react when questioned about what we considered to be his questionable ethical conduct, in having performed an abortion on a woman he had impregnated? We expected that, as with many people who've undergone a religious conversion, he would attribute his poor judgement to his atheism of the time. Since he had renounced abortion, converted to Christianity, and now received a degree in bioethics, we thought he might provide some interesting insight into his own past conduct.
Nathanson was in Philadelphia as the featured speaker at the "Stand Up For Life Dinner" sponsored by "The Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania." Attendees at the press conference, judging by the type of questions asked, were from sympathetic religious media. We saw no cameras nor anyone who could be identified as being from secular media.
Before Nathanson arrived, we briefly interviewed Molly Kelly, president of the "Delaware Valley Pro-Life Alliance," who was to be Master of Ceremonies that evening. Kelly is a nationally recognized advocate of abstinence and has written numerous pamphlets on 'chastity education.' She made it clear, when we asked what would come next if the so-called 'partial-birth abortion' were made illegal, that her aim was to "outlaw all abortion, make no mistake about it."
After a few questions by others - to which Nathanson gave lengthy answers, many of which were identifiable as his stock answers, including the jokes - we asked our first question. We asked, having seen many other leaders of the 'pro-life' movement oppose birth control, whether he also opposed it. "I do, for two reasons, yes. One is a matter, purely of faith. That I will set aside and I'm not going to discuss that with you because that's not discussable between you and me." Why does he insist upon avoiding discussing his faith, which is certainly of interest since he's just been baptized as a Catholic? Is it because he thinks it detracts from his standing as a 'scientific' authority on abortion if he even begins to discuss the subject?
"But I am also opposed to it on moral and ethical grounds," he continues, "and the reason is this. That if you cut off a natural function, or a function, from its natural purpose you end up with a perversion of that function." Isn't it an article of faith that the only natural purpose of sex is procreation?
We then asked to what extent he felt the government and state should reflect his position, since we've been watching leaders of Biblical America argue that their interpretation of 'God's law' must supercede secular law. After Nathanson insisted he wouldn't discuss faith with us, he then presented an explanation that can only be supported by faith.
"The whole body of law is 'God's law,'" he declared. "Where do we get the whole corpus of law from? It didn't spring full-blown from George Washington's forehead, or James Madison's forehead. It comes from a long tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition. And it's translated into governmental action by the passage of legislation. In answer to your question, yeah, I believe the government should intervene in the matter of abortion, because there there's the taking of human life and that's an inexpressively serious business."
He then distinguished his stance on abortion from his previous answer about contraception. "On the matter of artificial contraception I don't think the government has any role in that. I think that's up to the society, and its mores, and its ethics, and its understanding of what is happening, as I indicated to you I think it's basically antisocial and makes no sense morally or ethically." A few minutes later, Nathanson made it clear that he thinks laws are based on society's morality. Why, then, does he think that laws proscribing contraception are unnecessary?
We then asked what he thought would be the outcome of abortion prohibition. "Virtually every government prohibition is futile, in a certain sense," he says. "Laws really are not made to force people to do or not to do something. They are really made as an expression of the morality of a society, that's really all. And the fact that they do inhibit or stop or advocate something, well that's fine." Perhaps he hasn't noticed that the slogan of the most prominent event of his movement - the annual "March for Life" - is "not even a little bit of abortion." How does he feel, then, about shilling for a movement that truly thinks that legislation will completely eliminate abortion? We find it interesting that he endorses, in effect, the old saying of "laws are made to be broken," as a leader of a movement whose activists break the law with impunity.
Nathanson continued to flesh out his vision of a cloyingly paternalistic form of government. "If the government for example says violent crime is fine and by the way pornography is great and do all the drugs you want, what kind of a society do you have? I mean you wouldn't want that and neither would I, you'd have chaos and anarchy in the streets."
Nathanson already made it clear that he doesn't think abortion will be eliminated by legislation. He goes on to spell out in no uncertain terms what abortion prohibition actually means. "Supposing the government proscribed abortion - I mean you were about to ask that question - what would happen? Well first of all we'd never go back to back-alley abortions, that's out of the question in this day and age. I mean people are not going to start sticking coathangers up into the uterus again. What would happen would be a flourishing black market in these abortion pills."
Nathanson never acknowledges the obvious - that the return of an unregulated, unseen underground black market in abortion would invite the participation of the truly dedicated, the unscrupulous and the incompetent. It would only make abortion marginally available and dangerous. In short, people would die as a result. Of course, like all compulsory pregnancy advocates, Nathanson brushes the prospect of women dying as the result of abortion prohibition under the rug, insisting for no apparent reason that a return to the horrors of his residency would be impossible.
"But there would never be a return to the old bloody days which I saw in the 40's and 50's as a student in residence. No. Today it would be just the pills. I'm sure, women would be paying a lot of money for them, they'd do it, and women who are bent on having an abortion would have an abortion, very much as you are bent on making New York City in 45 minutes. Yeah, you could do it, but you'll probably get a ticket, but if you don't you don't."
Finally, after a few more questions from the other attendees, we asked our last question. Our intent was to encourage Nathanson, as an ethicist, to talk about the ethics of performing surgery on an individual one had been sexually intimate with. Some states, such as Colorado, completely ban all sexual contact between physician and patient - with no exceptions. Other states are more lenient. In any case, we thought that what he did was an example of questionable conduct, and we thought that in hindsight, he could shed some light on the issue. We asked about this incident and concluded with, "... most hospitals to [our] understanding would not be very comfortable with a doctor performing a procedure on someone that they had been intimate with."
He replied, "How would the hospital know? The hospital doesn't have a dossier on me and my sexual relationships."
He then went on to one of his stock answers, calling himself a "stiff-backed Jewish atheist" and telling us that he thought it was a good ethical decision at the time. His explanation sidesteps the ethics of the particular situation, a tacit admission that he doesn't see a problem with it.
Surprisingly, he then veered off topic to graphically demonstrate how he may actually feel toward women and the value of their lives. He explained that preventing women's deaths due to botched abortions was once very important to him, important enough for him to be in charge at the largest abortion facility in the world. With his attention focused on developments in technology such as fetal heart monitoring and sonograms, we feel he fixated upon the fetus and wrote women out of the picture.
Nathanson held his fists in front of him, as if to imitate a scale. He lowered the hand representing the fetus, as he raised the other hand, representing women; as if he were giving ever increasing value to the fetus until the women simply disappeared for him. Given the way in which he spoke on the subject, it was apparent to us that he was not working for the women out of a deeply held conviction or compassion, but rather a desire to play God, to "save" them. We think it's possible that upon learning what a messy business abortion really is, how routine the work was, and perhaps how unprofitable the service can be, he quite simply became bored and looked for a way out from under the pressures of the clinic and of NARAL, which he co-founded.
Seemingly lost in his calculations were women's lives and potential happiness, to the point at which, finally, they simply fell to insignificance, as he graphically showed us.
Fully aware of the inevitable consequences of the 'pro-life' proposition, Nathanson promotes policies under which thousands of women will die. We ask if, at that point, he would simply turn the other way, rationalize the deaths by blaming the victims, or perhaps it's simply a matter that he hasn't thought through. The implication of all this being that Nathanson either doesn't fully understand the consequences of abortion prohibition, or he genuinely feels women's lives are expendable. Nathanson clearly admits he's experienced firsthand the results of abortion prohibition; we strongly question his motivations for suggesting a return to that state of affairs.
At the moment Nathanson is the 'pro-life' movement's most high-profile ethicist, or perhaps we should say, he's a knowledgable person who has studied ethics. He has plainly indicated to us that he thinks that the presence or absence of witnesses to a particular willful act is relevant in evaluating the ethics of that act, even after prattling on at great length about how the enforcability of laws based upon a society's morals and ethics is irrelevant. We have some difficulty, therefore, in using the term 'ethicist' to describe Nathanson.
Further, he has clearly admitted what the true consequences of abortion prohibition will be. He seems quite pleased with the prospect of abortion being expensive and out of the reach of poor women, ignoring the ethics of making abortion not impossible - as it never will be - but only unavailable to those who can't afford it. And as a 'board certified obstetrician and gynecologist' he is quite aware that the 'abortion pills' will be insufficient to provide abortion in many cases; and that, yes, women who cannot afford to pay nor have the connections to obtain a black-market abortion will be mutilated. His willingness to sacrifice any number of lives for political gain hardly qualifies him as an ethicist.
Having viewed this demonstration of twisted ethics, we can only conclude that Nathanson's masters degree in bioethics serves one purpose, and one purpose only - to apply a veneer of respectability to himself, and to an American Life League front group called the "American Bioethics Advisory Commission" to which he has added his name. It provides him with an added air of authority, another title by which he can refer to himself, perhaps only to stay on the speaker's circuit with fresh material. It's clear that he, along with the movement with which he's aligned himself, posesses no sense of ethics other than a paper-thin and ideologically correct ethical smokescreen to make people believe that they have the legitimacy of ethical authority.
Originally published January, 1998