Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:


Bernard Nathanson

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 02 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1358

Rapid Response:

How the abortion movement started with deceit and lies--Dr Nathanson

I welcome the courage of the BMJ to write an obituary on Dr Bernard
Nathanson who became one of the most prominent opponents of abortion;
after being responsible for 75,000 or so abortions himself.
What is not immediately obvious to everyone is that the abortion movement
started with deception and even lies. Dr Nathanson has been very explicit
on this and I am going to quote from his writings and speeches. He said
regarding the campaign to legalise abortion in the US:

'We fed the public a line of deceit, dishonesty, a fabrication of
statistics and figures. We succeeded [in breaking down the laws limiting
abortions] because the time was right and the news media cooperated. We
sensationalized the effects of illegal abortions, and fabricated polls
which indicated that 85% of the public favoured unrestricted abortion,
when we knew it was only 5%. We unashamedly lied, and yet our statements
were quoted [by the media] as though they had been written in law.'
(quoted in John Powell, Abortion: the silent Holocaust. Tabor, Allen,
Texas. 1981.)

The statistics of maternal mortality due to self-induced abortion
were grossly exaggerated. Dr Nathanson writes:

'How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In
NARAL (National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws) we generally
emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but
when we spoke of the latter it was always 5,000 to 10,000 a year. I
confess that I knew the figures were totally false, But in the "morality"
of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out
of our way to correct it with honest statistics?' The official figures of
maternal death due to illegal abortion before abortion was legalised was
160. Dr Nathanson estimates the actual figure to be around 500 maternal
deaths per year. (Bernard Nathanson, Richard Ostling. Aborting America.
Pinnacle Books. New York 1979.)

In a speech he said about his attempts to legalise abortion:

'There was only silence from the opposition. We fed a line of deceit,
of dishonesty, of fabrication of statistics and figures; we coddled,
caressed, and stroked the press. (...) We were calling ourselves pro-
abortionists and pro-choice. In fact we were abortifiers: those who like
abortion. Let me digress and speak for a moment on the question of 'pro-
choice', as they euphemistically call themselves now. I reject that
phrase, that euphemism. It is misleading. It is dishonest. It implies that
in the issue of abortion there is an ethical choice whether to have an
abortion or whether not to have an abortion;...Of course... abortion is
not an ethical choice.

In February of 1971, I organized and ran the Center for Reproductive
and Sexual Health, another amusing euphemism for an abortion clinic. It
was not just an abortion clinic. It was the abortion clinic. It was in New
York and curiously, it was established and fed by the Clergy Consultation
Service, an organisation of twelve hundred Protestant Ministers and Jewish
Rabbis who took it upon themselves to funnel through 60,000 young women in
the space of 19 months that I ran it. The Clergy Consultation Service -
I'd never known that clergymen were actively involved in abortion before,
but my eyes were opened. ... It was a $5 million-a-year business. Think
now how many handicapped children could be helped, how much cancer
research could be done, how many operations of a decent sort could be
carried out on poor people with that kind of money!'

'The discussion... has been muddied by a resort to a particularly
vicious brand of anti-Catholicism, as many of you know, in the press.
There have been ongoing attempts to paint this movement [the pro-life
movement] as a Catholic movement, and there have been almost heartbreaking
lies and libel in the press on this score. If you ever substituted for the
word Catholic, in many of these publications the word Jewish or black, you
would be immediately castigated. The press would destroy you. However,
because the word Catholic is used, it appears to be allowable.'
(quoted in John Powell, Abortion: the silent Holocaust. Tabor, Allen,
Texas. 1981.)

Your article mentions the US Supreme court ruling from 1973 - Roe vs
Wade - that legalised abortion in the US. In what must have been quite a
blow to the pro-abortion movement, Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe," (the
pseudonym she assumed to remain anonymous as the lead plaintiff in that
case) also changed her mind on abortion. She appears to be actually quite
critical of the abortion movement, feels used, and admits that - at the
time - she was not seeking an abortion after all.
She now is actively involved in the pro-life movement and has her own
organisation (

Coming back to Dr Nathanson, why did he change his views on abortion?

'Why did I change my mind? Well, to begin with, it was not from a
religious conviction, ... I am an Atheist... In any case, the change of
mind began with the realization, the inescapable reality that the fetus,
that embryo, is a person, is a protectable human life. The change also
began on the basis of my own secular belief in the golden rule: if you
would not have your own life taken away from you, you must not take
someone else's life.' (quoted in John Powell, Abortion: the silent
Holocaust. Tabor, Allen, Texas. 1981.)

He wrote in the article (mentioned in the BMJ obituary) for the New
England Journal of Medicine in 1974:

"We must courageously face the fact - finally - that human life of a
special order is being taken. (...) The fierce militants of the Women's
Liberation evade this issue and assert that the woman's right to bear or
not to bear children is her absolute right. (...) On the other hand the
ferocious Right-to life legions proclaim no rights for the women and
absolute rights for the fetus. (...) Somewhere in the vast philosophic
plateau between the two implacably opposed camps- past the slogans, past
the pamphlets, past even the demonstrations and the legislative threats -
lies the infinitely agonizing truth. We are taking life, and the
deliberate taking of life, even of a special order and under special
circumstances, is an inexpressibly serious matter." (Bernard Nathanson.
Deeper into Abortion. New England Journal of Medicine. 28 November 1974.)

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 March 2011
Mark Houghton
Greystones Medical Centre, 33 Greystones Rd, Sheffield, S11 7BJ