For 20 years I showed my ethics students Silent Scream, a moving anti-abortion film narrated by the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who died earlier this year. He not only clearly described the abortion procedure (using an ultrasound) but shared his sorrow for playing a major role in legalizing it in 1972. When he made the film he professed no religious faith, merely a humanistic concern for taking innocent life. But in time, as he joined various anti-abortion endeavors, he came to faith and joined the Catholic Church. To explain his spiritual journey, including his early commitment to abortion-on-demand, and to evaluate the evil of killing unborn babies, he wrote The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind Washington (Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1996). “This book,” he said, “will be semi-autobiographical, using myself as a paradigm for the study of the systematic fission and demise of one system of morality, no matter how fragmented, fatuous, and odious, and the painful acquisition of another more coherent, more reliable, and less atomistic one” (p. 3).
His father, a brilliant obstetrician, “was a formidable, dominant force in my life and in many ways forged the ruthless, nihilistic pagan attitudes and beliefs that finally drove me to unleash—with a handful of co-conspirators—the abortion monster” (p. 5). Though nominally Jewish, the Nathansons (father and son) were thoroughly secularized, much attuned to the relativism of modernity. Highly intelligent, Nathanson moved easily through Cornell University and McGill Medical School. Importantly, at McGill he “forged a strong, even compelling teacher-student relationship” (p. 45) with Professor Karl Stern, an alluring lecturer who had left Judaism to enter the Catholic Church in 1943—a journey beautifully portrayed in The Pillar of Fire. While unaware of this at the time, 20 years later, “floundering in the wake of my hegemony of the abortion clinic and the doubts that were beginning to crack my own pillars of certainty,” Nathanson learned “that even as I had spoken to him on so many occasion about so many other things, he [Stern] possessed a secret I had been searching for all my life—the secret of the peace of Christ” (p. 46)
While at McGill Nathanson impregnated a young woman. To eliminate the problem his father sent him money to kill the baby, and he slipped easily “into the satanic world of abortion” (p. 58). Years later he would impregnate another woman (who begged to give birth to the child) and performed, without remorse, the abortion himself, killing his own child. “I have aborted the unborn children of my friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances, even teachers. There was never a shred of self-doubt, never a wavering of the supreme confidence that I was doing a major service to those who sought me out” (p. 61). Practicing medicine at Women’s Hospital in New York, he came to see abortion as a valuable service, particularly for the poor, making life better for the disadvantaged.
His commitment to abortion rights led to a relationship with Larry Lader, an “ardent feminist and a great admirer of Margaret Sanger” who “was obsessed with abortion” (p. 87). Nathanson and Lader teamed up to legalize abortion, forming the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and other action committees. Manipulating the media, recruiting ideological feminists and liberal clergy, fabricating statistics, making emotional appeals to pity and equity, they effectively orchestrated a repeal of New York’s abortion laws in 1970. A year later Nathanson became director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, an abortion clinic launched with the assistance of the Rev. Howard Moody and his Clergy Consultation Referral Service. He continued practicing obstetrics and gynecology and toured the country urging politicians to legalize abortion (unexpectedly accomplished through judicial fiat in Roe v. Wade in 1972) and “was known as the abortion king” (p. 124).
While promoting the cause, however, new technologies (preeminently the ultrasound) confronted and troubled Nathanson with the stark truth of abortion. To actually see the fetus in the womb revealed its fully human form, and he began to see the vapidity of all the assorted pro-abortion arguments he’d earlier espoused. He publically expressed his doubts and performed his last abortion in 1979, persuaded “that there was no reason for an abortion at any time; this person in the womb is a living human being, and we could not continue to wage war against the most defenseless of human beings” (p. 128). He clearly describes pre-natal developments, insisting “we have a virtually unbroken series of quantifiable, noncontingent, scientifically verifiable and infinitely reproducible events that signifies the beginning of a new human life” (p. 138).
His growing pro-life convictions led to an alignment with pro-life people—virtually all deeply religious and unusually at ease with themselves. He was amazed at the “sheer intensity of the love and prayer” evident in those who gathered to protest outside abortion clinics. His convictions regarding the sanctity of life, coupled with his amazement at Christians witnessing to their faith, led to an openness to the Lord and Giver of life. So, “for the first time in my entire adult life, I began to entertain seriously the notion of God—a god who problematically had led me through the proverbial circles of hell, only to show me the way to redemption and mercy through His grace. The thought violated every eighteenth-century certainty I had cherished; it instantly converted my past into a vile bog of sin and evil; it indicted me and convicted me of high crimes against those who had love me , and against those whom I did not even know; and simultaneously—miraculously—it held out a shimmering sliver of Hope to me, in the growing belief that Someone had died for my sins and my evil two millennia ago” (pp. 193-194).
Now he is “no longer alone” (p. 196). The lost is found. The blind now sees. The sinner’s saved. With his mentor Karl Stern, Nathanson has discovered, as Stern wrote in a letter, that that “‘toward Him we had been running, or from Him we had been running away, but all the time He had been in the center of things’” (p. 196). Along with Nathan’s earlier treatises—Aborting America and The Abortion Papers—this book provides invaluable insight into the monumental battle between the cultures of life and death.
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In her junior year at Texas A&M Amy Johnson decided work as a volunteer in a nearby Planned Parenthood facility, persuaded she could help thereby establish equal rights for women. Her compassion was ignited by a Planned Parenthood recruiter, who told her about anti-abortion zealots determined to deprive women of their rights and criminalize the procedure, “forcing women to choose between greater poverty and unwanted babies they couldn’t care for or dangerous back-alley butchers” (p. 17). Johnson’s volunteer work morphed into a full-time job and she became director of the clinic, effectively working for eight years, engaged in what she believed to be a righteous endeavor, helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies.
One day, however, she was unexpectedly drafted to handle the ultrasound probe while an abortionist killed a baby. Despite her role as director of the clinic, she had always avoided any involvement in the procedure, thinking of herself as a counselor providing birth control information and materials, helping women in need. Holding the probe, however, she saw a twelve week-old baby and thought about her own little girl, who had looked the same at 12 weeks. “What am I about to see?” she asked herself. “My stomach tightened. I don’t want to watch what is about to happen” (p. 4). But she couldn’t escape. Indeed she was a part of the team aborting the baby. In those crucial moments she faced the enormity of the act: “What was in this woman’s womb just a moment ago was alive. It wasn’t just tissue, just cells. That was a human baby—fighting for life! A battle that was lost in the blink of an eye. What I have told people for years, what I’ve believed and taught and defended, is a lie” (pp. 6-7).
Johnson (with Cindy Lambert) tells the story of her transformation in unPLANNED: The dramatic true story of a former Planned Parenthood leader’s eye-opening journey across the life line (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, c. 2010). Her account is powerful not only because of her change of heart but also because it gives us a glimpse into the abortion rights world—populated by tender-hearted, church-going, professing Christians such as Johnson. She grew up in a pro-life family and regularly attended a church that opposed abortion before going off to college. There she turned into a party girl and became sexually involved with an older man, Mark, when she was 20. This led (at his suggestion) to an unintended pregnancy’s termination. The “problem” solved, she “had no regrets. No sadness. No struggle over whether I’d done was right or wrong. Just a definite sense of relief. Whew. That’s behind me. I can get on with my life now” (p. 25).
She buried her abortion deep in her heart, determined to forever keep it a secret. She and Mark married, and she returned to A&M where she pursued a degree in psychology. The marriage soon collapsed, but just as the divorce was granted she found herself pregnant again. So she procured yet another abortion, reciting all the rationalizations she was learning at the Planned Parenthood facility, where her volunteer work had flourished and she was on staff. She also began interacting with pro-life protesters who stood and prayed outside the clinic, trying to persuade women to protect their unborn children. At first she saw them as enemies to be attacked, but in time their love and sincerity prodded her to consider their position. She was especially moved by Sister Marie Bernadette who silently prayed, serving as a “conscience” for them all.
She also met and married and had a baby with Doug, a pro-life believer who challenged (without ever personally attacking) her to evaluate her position with Planned Parenthood. They attended an evangelical church but were no allowed to join the congregation because of her work. So they found an Episcopal church which officially approved abortions and affirmed her conviction that she was doing the Lord’s work by helping needy women. Her conviction was reinforced by other “Christians” in the clinic, including some Roman Catholics, who claimed to be untroubled by promoting what their church decried. (Indeed, one of the messages of this book is the relative impotence of church teaching—folks like Johnson pretty much make up their own morality independent of religious teachings.)
Johnson loved her work, but as she received promotions and awards she moved into the upper echelon of Planned Parenthood management she grew distressed by what she encountered. Money seemed to preoccupy the organization’s leaders, and since “abortion services” generated significant revenue they figured significantly in Planned Parenthood’s agenda. Her own clinic in Bryan, which only scheduled abortions every other Saturday, was ordered to find ways to increase the numbers. The bottom line, not needy women, dictated decisions. Then came the day when she held the ultrasound wand and helped abort a baby. “Now that the scales had begun to fall from my eyes, the guilt of countless abortions, including my own two, came crashing down on my shoulders” (p. 123).
The next day she and Doug went to church, where she recited the liturgy’s confession of sin and did so with total honesty. In that moment, as the ancient words “spilled out, I sensed God’s love and forgiveness pouring in” (p. 129). She realized that this was a turning point for her, though she needed to find ways to rightly terminate her career with Planned Parenthood. She found comfort and assistance in the folks she’d for years considered foes—the Coalition for Life pro-life protesters who gathered each Saturday to decry abortions! They listened to her, loved her, and tried to help her. And her husband, above all, totally supported her. Her trusted colleagues at Planned Parenthood, however, betrayed her. She confided to two of them she considered friends, and they assured her that they likewise wanted to sever their relationship with the clinic, even enlisting her help in filling out resumes for job applications. But when Planned Parenthood initiated legal action (a restraining order) against her, it became clear that they “had not just turned against me but had apparently given false statements to the court” (p. 206). When the case came to trial, however, she was ably defended by an attorney affiliated with the Coalition for Life and the judge dismissed the case.
Amidst all the publicity generated by Johnson’s departure from Planned Parenthood—and the legal actions that followed—her decision gained national attention. She appeared on such programs as The O’Reilly Factor and was enabled to bear witness to the wonderful workings of God in her life as she came to the Light. Doors opened for her to speak and write to advance the pro-life cause, and when she tells her story she joins “in the legacy of prayer begun in Bryan, Texas,” and prays “for the women and men whom God is going to touch next, the lives He will save, the people he will use” (p. 256). This treatise, unPLANNED, eloquently advances that endeavor.
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In Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (Cambridge: University Press, c. 2007), Francis J. Beckwith writes primarily “to provide a thorough defense of the pro-life position on abortion and its grounding in a particular view of the human person, a view I will argue is the most rational and coherent one that is at the same time consistent with our deeply held intuitions about human equality” (p. xi). While focused on abortion, the book really argues that anyone defining man as the imago dei—the “intellectual scaffolding for the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial” (p. xi)—automatically presumes the sanctity of life.
Beckwith, currently a philosophy professor at Baylor University, succinctly summarizes his argument:
1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.
2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.
4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong.
Declarative statements (premises and conclusions to a syllogism) such as these obviously defy the pervasive moral relativism and tolerance so dominant today. (That most moral relativists turn absolutistic is, of course, a given—the same Peter Singer who allows infanticide becomes utterly dogmatic when asserting animal rights!) But when pro-abortion spokesmen address the issue they generally insist that moral decisions are simply personal or cultural preferences without objective standing. Beckwith examines and rejects such relativism, proving it self-refuting. If you’re truly a relativist you simply have nothing to say: since nothing is true or false, right or wrong, why would one bother making any moral pronouncements?
Yet moral relativists routinely impose their personal preferences through the judiciary! Reversing a century of legal tradition holding that the “unborn is constitutionally a person protectable under the Fourteenth Amendment” (p. 22), today’s abortion laws, shaped by Roe v. Wade (1973) and Doe v. Bolton (1973), allow abortion on demand. But during the past four decades, Beckman says, legal scholars have overwhelmingly rejected the spurious historical assertions (based upon two shoddy articles by a NARAL lawyer!) Associate Justice Harry Blackmun employed to make his case in Roe. Inexplicably, Blackmun appeared utterly uninterested in scientific or philosophical evidence; he declared that the Court need not determine when life begins, thereby decreeing that the “unborn is not a human person” (p. 30)! In his judicial fiat, Blackmun “seems to be confusing physical independence with ontological independence; he mistakenly argues from the fact of a pre-viable unborn’s lack of independence from its mother that it is not an independent being, a ‘meaningful life.’ ‘Once again,’ writes Hadley Arkes, ‘the Court fell into the fallacy of drawing a moral conclusion (the right to take a life) from a fact utterly without moral significance (the weakness or dependence of the child). The Court discovered, in other words, that novel doctrines could be wrought by reinventing old fallacies’” (p. 36).
Beyond the Court’s decisions, Beckwith addresses and declares vacuous the various popular and philosophical arguments set forth by abortion rights’ advocates. He shows, scientifically, that there is a being who is human living in the womb from the moment of conception: it is “indisputable that at syngamy a new human being, an individual human being, exists and is in the process of development and is not identical to either the sperm or the ovum from whose uniting it arose” (p. 66). Unlike a house or a bench, which we assemble over time, adding part after part, a fully human being appears in an instant! “From this point until death no new genetic information is needed to make the unborn entity an individual human being” (p. 67), and “the unborn at any stage of her development looks perfectly human because that is what humans look like a that time” (p. 152).
Pro-abortion advocates such as Judith Thomson, appealing to a multitude of fallacious arguments—pity, tolerance, feelings, etc.—almost always avoid this manifest reality: what is killed in abortion in a fully human being. And nothing justifies such killing! With meticulous care Beckwith explains and rejects such “pro-choice” appeals and extends his discussion to the related issues of cloning, bioethics and reproductive freedom, for “the answer to the philosophical question lurking behind abortion—Who and what are we?—turns out to be the key that unlocks the ethical quandaries posed by these other issues” (p. 203). It really matters that what is killed in abortion is truly an innocent human—a being different in kind from ants or antelopes.
“This moral truth,” says Beckwith in the book’s final paragraph, “is the one strand in the tapestry of republican government that, if removed, will put in place premises that will facilitate the unraveling of the understanding of ourselves and our rights that gave rise to the cluster of beliefs on which the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and human equality depend. As my dear friend Hadley Arkes has elegantly argued, if we are, as even the supporters of abortion must assume, bearers of moral rights by nature (including the ‘right to choose’), then there can be no right to abortion, for the one who has the ‘right to choose’ is identical to her prenatal self. Consequently, the right to abortion can only be purchased at the price of abandoning natural rights and replacing them with the will to power. It is a price not worth paying” (p. 229).
“‘Statecraft,’ Aristotle wisely instructed his pupils, ‘is soulcraft,’ by which he meant that the moral premises embedded in the social and legal fabric of a political regime provide direction and sustenance for the character and beliefs of its citizens” (p. 42). Our laws, as well as our schools, shape our minds. Our abortion laws espouse a culture of death that cannot but destroy our body politic in the long run. Deeply thoughtful treatises such as Beckwith’s, however intellectually challenging, are needed to restore the full equality of all persons to standing in our nation.