It has become common to view a right to abortion as the centerpiece of women’s rights in general. The push to legalize abortion is popularly considered the vanguard of the women’s rights movement that emerged in the early seventies.
The death last week of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the one-time abortion advocate who had an excruciating change of heart, reminds us that this view, while it may be commonplace, is nonetheless wrong.
Nathanson was, by his own admission, not much of a feminist. His commitment to legalizing abortion arose from his disgust for the medically sloppy consequences of the illegal abortions that he witnessed as a young intern. In 1967, his private disgust began to morph into public activism when he met Larry Lader, a “disciple” of Margaret Sanger, at a dinner party. Lader wasn’t, Nathanson has explained, much of a feminist either; he was dedicated to removing all obstacles to abortion — legal, social, and moral — because he was convinced that abortion was an essential component in solving the looming problems of overpopulation and, as his 1971 book title proclaimed, “Breeding Ourselves to Death.”
This chance meeting resulted in the conception of NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Nathanson and Lader tenaciously lobbied state legislatures, especially in their home state of the New York, to repeal nearly all prohibitions against abortion. Nathanson later admitted that they resorted to some rather unscrupulous tactics. He wrote, for example, that they simply made up the number of women had died from illegal abortions: “It was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false…. The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.” But their efforts were not very successful until Lader had a brilliant idea: linking legal abortion to the burgeoning feminist movement.
The first edition of Betty Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, did not even mention abortion. Legalizing abortion was not on the newborn NOW’s list of issues. In his 1979 book Aborting America, Dr. Nathanson recalled Lader saying, “If we’re going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we’re going to have to recruit the feminists. Friedan has got to put her troops into this thing — while she still has control of them.”
When I met Nathanson at the National Right to Life convention in June of 1986, he told me that they convinced the leaders of NOW that easy access to legal abortion was essential to ameliorating the problems that were thwarting the well-being of women, the problems that Friedan had identified in her book. “We got them to see legal abortion as a civil rights issue, a basic women’s rights issue,” Nathanson explained. In Nathanson’s earlier words, “Lader’s marriage with the feminists was a brilliant tactic.” Abortion has been NOW’s cardinal cause ever since.
Nathanson spent the last third of his life trying to undo what he had done to promote and entrench abortion into our culture. I know that he suffered excruciating moral pain over acknowledging his role in enabling the deaths of millions of unborn humans. His journey from abortion apologist to pro-life activist was a fascinating one, one that gives us hope that any person with an open mind and an honest heart can find a way to truth.