Sins of the Father: The Role of an Abusive Tyrannical Patriarch in the Legalization of Abortion in the United States

Sins of the Father: The Role of an Abusive Tyrannical Patriarch in the Legalization of Abortion in the United States



Kevin Burke, LSW

[The following is an excerpt from the book Rivers of Blood/Oceans of Mercy.]

The late Dr Bernard Nathanson was the father of two aborted children, and experienced a difficult relationship with his own father.  This painful father/son relationship played a key role in the legalization and promotion of abortion in the United States.

Terry Beatley reveals in her book “What If We’ve Been Wrong?” that Nathanson’s father, a highly respected obstetrician-gynecologist, was a tyrant in the home:

“Bernard was born into a loveless home in which disdain toward his mother replaced oxygen in the household. His mother was constantly and unfairly berated and belittled by her husband [His father further humiliated his wife with extramarital affairs]… Nathanson and his sister, despite this hungered to gain their father’s respect and affirmation.” [1]

Nathanson father, a staunch atheist, sent his son to the finest Jewish schools to become instructed in the letter of the law. Yet young Nathanson was immersed in a family culture where religious belief was ridiculed and faith stripped of any values and heart. As he matured Bernard was driven to find liberation from his father’s oppression and emotional rejection, even as he continued to long for his father’s affirmation and respect as a son, and as a man.

It is from this complex family background that Nathanson, following in his father’s footsteps, entered medical school and fell in love with Ruth.   Author Beatley shares that “he was drawn to her innocence, intellect, and radiance.” Sadly, Nathanson would soon disfigure the beauty that attracted him to Ruth.

The couple spoke of marriage but when an unplanned pregnancy occurred, Nathanson (fearing his father’s response and driven to prove his self-worth) decided a newborn would interfere with the completion of his medical training.  Abortion was illegal in New York at this time, so Ruth travelled alone to Montreal for the procedure.

Ruth sacrificed their child so Bernard could finish medical school. Beatley shares that she returned to New York via taxi in a puddle of blood, and as is common after an abortion, the couple soon drifted apart.

From Victim to Perpetrator

It is important to understand Nathanson’s abortion in this context; the son who was emotionally aborted by his father, later becomes the father who aborts his unborn child. This is a complex emotional dynamic where the child who was the victim of emotional rejection and abuse, later becomes the perpetrator in the destruction of his own unborn child.

After finishing medical school and the start of his professional career, the relationship with his father became increasingly bitter and contentious. The father/son relationship was now terminated.

There is another key post-abortion dynamic to consider as Nathanson begins his professional medical career.

For Nathanson, this combination of a dysfunctional relationship with his dad, and the denial of his own post abortion guilt and grief as a father, set the stage for his emergence as a pivotal figure in the efforts to legalize abortion in New York, and throughout the nation.

During his residency training Nathanson recognized that although abortion was illegal, by understanding how to work the system, New York City hospitals were still performing D&C abortions for supposed miscarriages – that were in fact healthy pregnancies.   He also noted the disparity in the quality of care for patients depending on their economic background.

Nathanson’s tyrannical father led him to share a natural affinity for the anti-establishment, anti-authority culture of the 1960’s. He despised the medical establishment’s maintenance of what he saw as an unjust and unsafe tolerance of illegal abortion.

As an ob-gyn physician Nathanson became an essential front man in the campaign to repeal existing abortion laws.  Author Terry Beatley details in her book the unfolding events and key players (and the use of deception, misinformation and outright lies) leading up to the legalization of abortion; first in New York in 1970 and then with the Roe V Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 legalizing abortion in all 50 states.

The Apple in the Garden of Choice

Whatever Nathanson’s good intentions, once you begin the descent down that slippery slope where medical professionals and parents assume the life and death decisions that are the exclusive providence of the Creator of life, a process of moral and spiritual corruption and decay sets in.

After abortion became legal in New York in 1970, Dr Nathanson trained doctors in the use of vacuum abortion, a method recently perfected at that time in communist China, as a more efficient method of termination. He also shared with his fellow physicians abortion methods for later term pregnancies such as saline abortion.

This method injects a poisonous saline solution into the mother’s womb. The child inhales the solution into their tiny lungs as the saline burns the baby’s skin.  The child suffers a gruesome and painful torture for about an hour before dying in the womb.  The mother gives birth to a dead child, or in some cases to a child barely alive that is abandoned or in some cases left to die.

As disturbing as this is, there is an even more shocking event in the journey of Bernard Nathanson as a pioneer of abortion rights.   Dr Nathanson, who as a young medical student persuaded Ruth to abort their child, and was emotionally aborted by his father, assumed a dark mastery of his repressed grief and pain.

Nathanson devolves into a sinister reflection of his tyrannical father

Author Terry Beatley shares that Dr Nathanson was involved in another unplanned pregnancy after Ruth. This time, the doctor personally performed the abortion of his unborn child:

“Yes, his hands had personally killed his own child and, when he had finished the procedure, he felt only pride in his adept skill.”

The Crushing Burden of Truth

The development of ultrasound technology finally broke through Nathanson’s denial of the humanity of the unborn child. He came to reject abortion and regret his role in the legalization of the procedure, and his personal responsibility, directly or indirectly, for some 75,000 abortions.

Fr. Frank Pavone knew Dr. Nathanson and introduced him at an international pro-life presentation in 1994 at which Dr. Nathanson announced that he was becoming a Christian. He said at the end, “I hope God can forgive me,” and Fr. Frank assured him that God, seeing his repentance, had already done so, and the whole assembly prayed for him right then and there.

Nearly two decades later, in 2011, Fr. Frank visited Dr. Nathanson in his Manhattan apartment just days before his death. His voice just at a whisper, the first thing he said to Fr. Frank when he entered his room was, “Fr. Frank, how goes the crusade?” There, in the final days of Dr. Nathanson’s final illness, his mind was focused on the pro-life activists working to undo the damage he had done. He wanted to encourage all who work to heal the wounds which he knew he had done so much to unleash.


More on Rivers of Blood/Oceans of Mercy

River of Blood/Ocean of Mercy will help you get beyond the contentious political, moral and theological debates, and get to the heart of the issue.   This will equip you as a minister, counselor, friend and family member to reach out with the understanding and mercy of the Lord to those hurting after abortion, and speak the truth in love to a nation in massive denial of what is, given the widespread impact of abortion, a national trauma.  You will be empowered to speak, teach and preach on this topic without fear, and with great sensitivity and effectiveness.

We will explore the connection of abortion with previous trauma such as divorce and abuse, the rising transgender madness, and how the high rates of abortion impact our poorest communities.   Despite the institutionalized censorship, you will read how some very popular television and film allow the powerful expression of themes closely associated with this national trauma.

When we get beyond the rhetoric of reproductive rights, you will discover that the experience of abortion touches on the most intimate aspects of personal identity, wounding the hearts and souls of women and men.

You will also find as our journey unfolds, the good news of God’s mercy and restoration.  Women and men that experience this mercy, reconciliation and healing of God our Creator, do indeed become, as St John Paul II proclaimed, …among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.”[2]

[1] Beatley, T. (2017).  What If We’ve Been Wrong.  Guiding Light Books, LLC

[2] Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), #99


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