The Sins of the Father: The Role of an Abusive Tyrannical Patriarch in the Legalization of Abortion in the United States
by Kevin Burke, LSW
The father of the late abortion pioneer and physician Bernard Nathanson played a key role in the legalization and promotion of abortion in the United States.
Terry Beatley reveals in her fascinating 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.”
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 were 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 soil that Nathanson, following in his father’s footsteps, entered medical school and met 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.
Ruth sacrificed their child so Bernard could finish medical school. Abortion was illegal in New York at this time so she travelled alone to Montreal for the procedure. Beatley shares that Ruth returned to New York via taxi in a puddle of blood, and as is common after an abortion, the couple soon drifted apart.
Nathanson likely had no conscious awareness at that time of how the abortion impacted him as a man and father. However, based on my own professional and ministry experience with men after abortion loss, there are some themes to consider.
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.
Some women and men deny their experience of shame, guilt and any natural sense of emptiness and grief related to the death of their unborn child, by adopting a strong pro abortion moral and political stance. This is a very powerful form of denial that serves to continually validate their abortion decision and also to divert their complex post abortion feelings into activism and promotion of abortion rights.
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 in New York in 1970 and 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 directly murdered.
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, assumes dark mastery of his repressed grief and pain.
Nathanson evolves 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.
Terry Beatley had the opportunity in 2009 to visit Dr Nathanson prior to his death in 2011.
“I am responsible for the death of seventy-five thousand children. Five thousand at my own hands. I taught doctors how to perform abortion surgery on another ten thousand babies and , on my watch, and additional sixty thousand children were killed by my team; that’s seventy-five thousand lives.”
Nathanson as he began his practice as a young physician was a wounded man. He was further compromised by his abortion with Ruth, and still desperate for the love and validation of his father. He was raised in a family culture that deprived him of the moral foundation, faith and values to resist the diabolical temptations he faced as an ob-gyn physician in the turbulent 1960’s.
While we can be thankful for his eventual rejection of abortion and conversion to the Christian faith, he ended his life with great anxiety and the crushing weight of his own role in the death of now over fifty-five million unborn children in the United States.
The sins of the father indeed.