Yesterday, I received two views on abortion within an hour of each other. I found the juxtaposition disturbing. In the first, Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson an abortion advocate who in the 1970’s repented of his ways by becoming an anti-abortion advocate and converting from Judaism to the Catholic Church. In the second, a copy of Rabbi Aviner’s know position that abortion for birth defects is fine. I am not sure why it bothered me so much. I know that there are rabbinic positions against abortion and I am not advocating that. There was something in Aviner’s tone that made the Nathanson story more poignant. Maybe it was his eugenic vision of producing strong vital large families. I know that Modern Orthodox rabbis regularly permit abortion for medical reasons. My nagging question is by what criteria? What is their view of science, the nature of the soul, sanctity of life? I do not think they answer just by legal formalism, but is there vision of the meaning of it all?
Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, a campaigner for abortion rights who, after experiencing a change of heart in the 1970s became a prominent opponent of abortion and the on-screen narrator of the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream,” died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84. . Dr. Nathanson, an obstetrician-gynecologist practicing in Manhattan, helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America) in 1969 and served as its medical adviser.
After abortion was legalized in New York in 1970, he became the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, which, in his talks as an abortion opponent, he often called “the largest abortion clinic in the Western world.”
In a widely reported 1974 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Deeper into Abortion,” Dr. Nathanson described his growing moral and medical qualms about abortion. “I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.”
His unease was intensified by the images made available by the new technologies of fetoscopy and ultrasound.
“For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it,” he later wrote in “The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind” (Regnery Publishing, 1996). “I began to do that.”
In addition to the 60,000 abortions performed at the clinic, which he ran from 1970 to 1972, he took responsibility for 5,000 abortions he performed himself, and 10,000 abortions performed by residents under his supervision when he was the chief of obstetrical services at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan from 1972 to 1978.
He did his last procedure in late 1978 or early 1979… and soon embarked on a new career lecturing and writing against abortion.
“The Silent Scream,” a 28-minute film produced by Crusade for Life, was released in early 1985. In it, Dr. Nathanson described the stages of fetal development and offered commentary as a sonogram showed, in graphic detail, the abortion of a 12-week-old fetus by the suction method.
“We see the child’s mouth open in a silent scream,” he said, as the ultrasound image, slowed for dramatic impact, showed a fetus seeming to shrink from surgical instruments. “This is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.”
Supporters of abortion rights and many physicians, however, criticized it as misleading and manipulative. Some medical experts argued that a 12-week-old fetus cannot feel pain since it does not have a brain or developed neural pathways, and that what the film showed was a purely involuntary reaction to a stimulus.
Dr. Nathanson earned a degree in bioethics from Vanderbilt University in 1996 and that year was baptized as a Roman Catholic — he described himself up to that time as a Jewish atheist — in a private ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Cardinal John J. O’Connor, the archbishop of New York.
About his baptism, he said, “I was in a real whirlpool of emotion, and then there was this healing, cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place.”
“He was a pro-life prophet,” Father McCloskey said in a recent Register interview. “He saw the whole culture of death coming, and knew that abortion was just the tip of the iceberg.”
Testing a Fetus for Abnormalities:
The Responsum which Hangs on Hospital Walls
[Shut She’eilat Shlomo vol.2 #312]
Question: Should older women be counseled to have a prenatal exam to reveal an abnormality with the fetus? If a problem is detected, what benefit is there if it is not permissible to have an abortion? Furthermore, since these exams can endanger the life of the fetus, is it permissible to check if the fetus has an abnormality?
Answer: 1. It is a good idea to have this exam, since either way – if the exam is positive and there is no problem, the pregnancy will continue with calm and contentment for the benefit of the mother and perhaps also for the benefit of the fetus. If, however – G-d forbid, the exam is negative and there is a problem, they can turn to a rabbi and ask him if it is permissible to abort in such a case. If he rules that it is permissible – since there are cases where it is permissible, and indeed abortions have been performed in practice by the rulings of great authorities – the parents can responsibly decide what they want to do. If they decide to keep the child, it will be out of free will, and they will accept him lovingly with a full heart, and they will raise him lovingly with a full heart.
2. Regarding man interfering with Hashem’s actions, there is absolutely no interference here. Everything is included in the light of Hashem which illuminates the path of the scientific intellect of man, which acts in a manner permissible according to the word of Hashem, which was revealed to us by Moshe Rabbenu. If this were not so, all medicine and all science in general, would be invalid. And on the contrary, wisdom gives strength to the wise man.
3. Regarding the claim which is heard against abortion being permitted according to Halachah, that it prevents a soul from entering the world, we do not engage in the hidden in order to decide Halachah.. On the contrary, the Halachah must be decided according to what is revealed to us and our children for eternity, and anything which is intended by the Halachah is in any case intended by the secrets of the Torah which are more hidden. If according to Halachah there is room to perform an abortion, we rely and trust that this soul will find a correction in other ways and the hand of Hashem will not shorten.
4. Regarding the test being dangerous, besides the fact that there are tests which are devoid of any danger, such as blood tests; according to Halachah, it is permissible to enter into a remote chance of danger when there is a need, such as making a living – engaging in a profession which has a certain danger involved in it or for a mitzvah. Endangering oneself in a minimal way is called as “an infrequent damage” in Halachah. This is the law in our case, since giving birth to a disabled baby can sometimes destroy an entire family, and all the more so when we are discussing the danger of a fetus which is yet to be born.
We must certainly clarify, however, if it is permissible to have a test with a minimal chance of danger. It does not make sense to enter into details here, since Blessed be Hashem, science continues to advance, and in each individual case, one must take counsel with a G-d-fearing doctor and with an halachic authority.
5. The last is the most precious. The reality is that many women, who are not young, refrain from becoming pregnant, even though they very much have such a desire, because of a fear of giving birth to a disabled baby, and they live with a broken heart. When an halachic authority permits, and even encourages them, to arrange a prenatal exam, and also promises that in the case of a problem, G-d forbid, he will stand by their side in finding an halachic solution with responsible thought given to the effects on the family, this will take a huge burden off of their heart, and they will give birth to more children who will fill their lives with joy and happiness, and add more servants to the world for the sake of increasing the sanctification of Hashem’s Great Name.
R. Aviner’s position reflects the dual nature of Israel’s feelings about having children. They are very pronatalist and spend more money on IVF and related technologies than any other country. On the other hand they want children who are not disabled and have the most extensive prenatal testing + selective abortion program in the world.
What is disturbing is how a prominent halakhist is unable to formulate a social critique that questions either of these values, or the underlying assumptions about the value of people born disabled and the effects of having a disabled child on a family.