Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Dr. Bernard Nathanson: A Story of Metanoia

Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Dr. Bernard Nathanson: A Story of Metanoia

Article excerpt

Dr. Bernard Nathanson is a name, a man and a life story that we all should know, but too few do. I saw Dr. Nathanson around the hospital a few times and maybe at a medical meeting or so, when I was an Obstetrics and Gynecology resident at Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital in New York during the late 1960?. But I never knew him; probably, we were never introduced. Then, when I was on the Gynecology Service in the Department of Surgery, across town at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center during 1969-1971,1 heard rumors from colleagues that, anticipating repeal of the State's abortion laws, a lot of money was being made by surgeons doing abortions at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Harlem. It was not until just a few years ago, some 50 years later, when I came across a photo of Dr. Nathanson on the dust jacket of his book, Aborting America, that I recognized its author who had so much to do with the movement to legalize and promote the practice of abortion on demand in New York and in the United States.

Bernard N. Nathanson was born in New York City on July 31, 1926. Had he lived beyond 2011, he now would be 92 years old. Too bad that he isn't alive, still; because Dr. Nathanson could share his story of metanoia better than anyone else can convey. According to his own account, Bernard Nathanson was the son of a secular Jewish father, a successful obstetrician and gynecologist, who practiced mainly at New York's St. Luke's Hospital.1 Though from a desperately poor immigrant family in Montreal, Bernard's father by own wits and herculean efforts was able to study at McGill University and graduate from the medical school.2 The marriage of Bernard's parents was conflicted, and the relationships between father and mother and their two offspring were stress filled.3 Bernard Nathanson describes his father as profoundly suspicious, domineering and overbearing, implicating, somewhat, their father's traits and behavior in the suicide of Bernard's sister at age 49 years.4 Bernard writes that his father celebrated the High Holydays and that Bernard, himself, had Bar Mitzvah, but in other ways the immediate family is not depicted as being earnestly religious.5 And as a young and middle-aged adult, Bernard was a self-proclaimed atheist.6

Ambitious for his son to follow him in the profession of Obstetrics and Gynecology, when the time came, the senior Dr. Nathanson, through close connections since graduation and continued contributions to McGill University, saw to it that Bernard was admitted there to study medicine.7 During the years of these studies, young Bernard became involved with what sounds to be a mutually caring, intimate and ultimately sexual relationship with a young Canadian woman who became pregnant.8 Confiding this predicament to his father, Bernard was advised by him to secure the services of a competent abortionist.9 Even though direct termination of pregnancy was illegal in Montreal at the time, Bernard's father provided sufficient funds for the operation.10 Despite complications following the procedure, Bernard's lover expressed her pride in saving his money by negotiating with the abortionist for a lower fee.11 Thereafter, though the couple continued their liaison, the relationship, it seems, was never quite the same.12 Once again Bernard met his Canadian girlfriend for a brief sexual encounter in a shabby New York hotel, but by then the relationship had mutually cooled.13 After medical school, Nathanson continued postgraduate studies at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago and in an Obstetrics and Gynecology residency at New York's Women's Hospital, during which he served an interlude as a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force, 1953-1955.14

Following his residency in 1957, young Dr. Nathanson entered the private practice of Obstetrics and Gynecology, affiliated with Women's Hospital.15 During the course of his medical education and training experience and his thriving early practice in New York, where elective voluntary interruptions of pregnancy (VIPs) were then illegal, Nathanson describes his unexamined but honestly growing sense of injustice that while well-to-do women were able to secure so-called "indicated" abortions on the basis of often somewhat dubious psychiatric claims or by going abroad for VIPs in countries where the practice was tolerated, women without resources-poor women-were not. …

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