The Role of Father Wounds and Personal Abortion Loss in the Emergence of Dr Bernard Nathanson as a Pioneer in the Legalization of Abortion in the U.S.

The Role of Father Wounds and Personal Abortion Loss in the Emergence of Dr Bernard Nathanson as a Pioneer in the Legalization of Abortion in the U.S.

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Kevin Burke, LSW

February 21st marks the eleven year anniversary of the death of Dr Bernard Nathanson, an obstetrician who was directly responsible for 75,000 abortions before becoming a leading pro-life advocate and a convert to the Catholic faith.

What is lesser known, is that Nathanson was the father of two aborted children, and experienced a difficult relationship with his own father.  This painful father/son relationship, together with his personal abortion loss, played a key role in the legalization, and expansion, of abortion in the United States.

 Nathanson’s father was a highly respected obstetrician-gynecologist.  Yet, in the home, he was a tyrant, emotionally abusing and belittling his wife on a daily basis, and humiliating her with his extramarital affairs. [1]

The young Bernard 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 hunger 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.  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. She returned to New York via taxi in a puddle of blood, and, as is common after the procedure, the couple soon drifted apart.

From Victim to Perpetrator

It is important to understand Nathanson’s personal experience of abortion in this context; the son who felt 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.  Like the relationship with his aborted child, the father/son relationship was now terminated by Nathanson.

There is another key post-abortion dynamic to consider as Nathanson began 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. 

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

Dr Nathanson was involved in another unplanned pregnancy after Ruth. This time, the doctor personally performed the abortion of his preborn child.

The Crushing Burden of Truth

The development of ultrasound technology finally broke through Nathanson’s as he could no longer deny the humanity of the preborn child. He came to reject abortion and regret his role in the legalization of the procedure, and his personal responsibility for some 75,000 abortions.

Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life 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.”  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 upon the world. 


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

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