THE HAND OF GOD by Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D.(Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C., 1996) 206 pp. $24.95.
My reading of "The Hand of God" was colored by a personal debt I owe Dr. Nathanson. When I was in Peru, we used the Spanish version of his video "Silent Scream" in our courses. It made a deep impression on young people who really had not reflected on what an abortion is. For one woman in particular it made all the difference.
"María" (not her real name) an Indian woman in her late twenties, got involved with a school teacher and became pregnant. As odd as this sound, she came to me, the parish priest, because she wanted help to obtain an abortion. I listened to her story. It was common enough. She loved the father of the baby, but he did not want anything to do with her or the child. She hoped that if she got rid of the child, she could get her boy-friend back. After our conversation, I sent her to see Luz Marrón, a midwife/obstetrician who worked in the parish. She first examined María, then showed her the video "Silent Scream." It touched her so profoundly she decided to keep the baby.
María had a beautiful baby girl. When I visited Peru, I saw the two of them. As a single mother with most limited resources, she is struggling to raise her daughter. I asked María if she ever thought about giving up her baby. She said, "No, I would not give her up for anything."
In "The Hand of God" Dr. Nathanson tells how "Silent Scream" was made. In many ways it sums up his odyssey from an abortion doctor to a pro-life activist. It also became a flash point for his conflict with former abortion allies. Dr. Nathanson tells what happened when they tried to have the video shown on national television. There is enormous resistance to showing the visual, scientific evidence. Nathanson gives his analysis of why that is so. He is perhaps in the best position to do that since he knows both sides of this issue from personal experience.
The book lays bare his own life story in intimate detail. In fact, I have to say that at certain points I winced, especially as he described his relationship with his father, sister, wives and son. I asked myself, "Did he really have to share so much to get across the point?" I ask that question sincerely because I really do not know the answer and I believe I have been guilty myself of revealing unnecessary details. Still, I could not help but think of the first spiritual autobiography: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Dr. Nathanson succeeds not only in telling his life story, but more important how the Hand of God was at work in it.
The book describes a raw spiritual struggle, but not a change from a devil to a saint. Even in the years when he lobbied for legal abortions and then oversaw tens of thousands of them, you cannot describe Nathansonn as moral monster. He had good reasons for wanting abortion to be legal and safe. Prior to Roe v. Wade women were seeking illegal abortions and coming to clinics with horrendous physical damage. Dr. Nathanson does not downplay his reasons for picking up the cause and running with it.
What is astounding is how he changed course. We see an almost cold logic which smashed his previous world view. His good reasons for performing abortions were no match for what he saw with his own eyes. He describes how the science of fetology had advanced due to ultra-sound and other techniques. The "Silent Scream," which shows one of the very last abortions performed in his clinic, was the fruit of that technology.
His moral conversion came with a high price. He had to leave a job where he had god-like power. His former friends and "co-conspirators" saw him as traitor and responded predictably: scorn, hate mail, death threats and perhaps worst of all--an aloof unwillingness to engage him. They can afford a certain arrogance because they know they have the power of a whole "culture" behind them.
I have seen the power and the subtleness of this culture myself. In my Christmas homily I talked about the meaning of Jesus' name ("God saves us from our sins") and I used Dr. Nathanson as an example. I mentioned briefly the Silent Scream. I was stunned by the depth of rage that homily touched. For some of my listeners what I said was "disgusting" and "inappropriate." I was going to argue that just three days after Christmas, Dec. 28, we have a feast day centered on the slaughter of the Innocents. But then I reflected that they are correct. For our culture it is inappropriate, in almost any context, to describe what abortion actually is. Consequently women who go in for the procedure often have only a vague idea what is actually happening.
Dr. Nathanson not only left that culture with its massive cover-up, but began to battle against it. He started that battle as an atheist who had become convinced by scientific evidence. But the evidence was about human life and therefore the fifth commandment "Thou shall not kill." That he himself had violated that commandment not once but thousands of times was indeed a heavy burden. By facing the personal meaning of the moral law, he was quickly carried to the question of God. He began reading the great Christian authors and as he did so, the evidence for Christianity mounted.
The final chapter describes how he went from atheism to Christianity. In reading it, I was reminded of another great convert, C.S. Lewis. As a young university professor he was quite comfortable in his atheism. But then, because of some good influences, he began to try to live the moral law. Things began to unravel. He did try to be moral and at the same time to cling to his atheism. But in the end says Lewis, "God checkmated me." The same happened to the author of "Hand of God." His autobiography not only analyzes the greatest moral issue of our times, but gives a searing picture of one soul caught up in that struggle.
Order your copy of Hand of God.
The story of Dr. Nathanson's Conversion to Catholicism by Julia Duin (Crisis Online)
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