Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011)

By: Mark Zhang

Bernard Nathanson (1926–2011)

Bernard Nathanson was an obstetrician and gynecologist in New York City, New York, who argued for, and later against, womens' rights to abortion. Between 1970 and 1979, Nathanson oversaw at least 75,000 abortions, 5,000 of which he performed himself, earning him the nickname of abortion king. However, his views regarding abortion shifted in 1973, after he watched an abortion using ultrasound imaging technology. Afterwards, Nathanson began to oppose womens' rights to abortion, and he published the anti-abortion book Aborting America and produced the film The Silent Scream.

Nathanson was born on 31 July 1926 to Harriet Dover and Joseph Nathanson in Manhattan in New York City, New York. Joseph owned a medical practice and taught obstetrics and gynecology at Cornell University Medical School, in New York City. Nathanson and his younger sister, Marion, grew up in a secular Jewish household, yet Nathanson claimed to be an atheist for most of his adult life until he was baptized in 1996 as a Roman Catholic. In Nathanson's memoir, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor who Changed his Mind, he notes that Joseph had extramarital affairs, was dominating and overbearing, and later drove Marion to suicide at the age of forty-nine. Nathanson also claims that his own support for womens' rights to abortion was due in part to rebellion against his father.

Nathanson began his college education as part of an accelerated program at Cornell University Ithaca, New York in 1943. In 1945 Nathanson attended his father's alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for medical school. After he graduated with an MD in 1949, Nathanson completed an internship at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and he did a medical residency at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. In 1953 he left his residency to enlist in the US Air Force, where he served as an obstetrician and gynecologist for a few years before he opened his own practice in Manhattan. As a result of his experience treating women who had undergone illegal abortions, which he claimed were the leading cause of death among pregnant women, he was motivated to expand access to legal abortions.

In 1969 Nathanson helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, an abortion advocacy group later called NARAL Pro-Choice America. During his time with NARAL, Nathanson helped repeal a New York statute that prohibited elective abortions, and he led a symposium on abortion techniques at New York University Medical Center. In January 1971, nine months after the state of New York legalized abortion, Nathanson began directing the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in New York City. The Center was an early abortion clinic in the US. After a two-year stint running the clinic, Nathanson left to become the chief of obstetrics at St. Luke's Hospital, where he worked from 1972 until 1978.

Nathanson changed his views about abortion in 1973 when he watched ultrasound images of an abortion. Prior to viewing these images, Nathanson had overseen and performed thousands of abortions in the first few years after the elective procedure was legalized, and he had performed an abortion on his girlfriend. However, Nathanson claimed he had never felt emotional about the procedure. After using ultrasound technology, Nathanson said he could see the fetus's shrinking away from abortion tools, which he felt was an indication that the fetus could feel pain. Prior to the last abortion Nathanson performed in late 1978 or early 1979, he had restricted his procedures only to those done for the safety of the pregnant patient.

In 1979 Nathanson published Aborting America with reporter and writer Richard Ostling, also of New York. In the book Nathanson claims that he and other abortion-rights activists had falsified statistics in their arguments for the repeal of the ban on abortions. Nathanson produced the film The Silent Scream in 1985, in which he narrates the process of an abortion as it is shown using ultrasound technology. The film was praised by US President Ronald Reagan, who suggested that if all members of Congress saw the film, fewer members would support abortion rights. In 1987 Nathanson made the anti-abortion documentary Eclipse of Reason, which shows a late-term abortion in color video, as recorded through an endoscope.

Nathanson continued to teach obstetrics and gynecology as an assistant professor at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, In Ithica, from 1984 to 1990. From 1990 to 2002, he was a professor at New York Medical College. He married four times and divorced three times, and he fathered a son, Joseph. Nathanson died of cancer in New York City on 21 February 2011 at the age of eighty-four. In his memoir, Nathanson proposed that his change to an anti-abortion stance was based on science and logical reasoning, and because of his participation in abortion advocacy, he became an even stronger proponent of restricting womens' rights to abortions.


  1. Bottum, Joseph. "Much to Atone For: Bernard Nathanson, 1926-2011." The Weekly Standard, March 7, 2011. (Accessed March 1, 2013).
  2. Grimes, William. "B. N. Nathanson, 84, Dies; Changed Sides on Abortion." The New York Times, February 21, 2011. (Accessed March 1, 2013).
  3. McCombs, Phil. "The 'Scream' of Bernard Nathanson; The Obstetrician's Odyssey, From Abortion King to Anti-Abortion Activist." The Washington Post, March 24, 1985, Style section, Final edition.
  4. Nathanson, Bernard. The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1996.
  5. Nathanson, Bernard, and Richard Ostling. Aborting America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.
  6. Nathanson, Bernard, and Donald S. Smith. The Silent Scream. Motion picture. Directed by Bernard Nathanson. Brunswick, OH: American Portrait Films, 1984. (Accessed April 22, 2013).
  7. Nathanson, Bernard, and Charles Warren. Eclipse f Reason. Motion Picture. Directed by R. Anderson. New York: Bernadell, 1987. (Accessed April 22, 2013).
  8. Public Broadcasting Service. "Richard N. Ostling." Online News Hour. (Accessed March 9, 2013).
  9. Snyder, Alison. "Bernard Nathanson." The Lancet 377 (2011): 990.
  10. Vincent, Stephen. "Bernard Nathanson Dead at 84." National Catholic Register, February 21, 2011. (Accessed March 1, 2013).


How to cite

Zhang, Mark, "Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia ( ). ISSN: 1940-5030


Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

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