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Bernard Nathanson, abortion doctor who became anti-abortion advocate, dies at 84

Bernard Nathanson, shown here in 1985, was a New York abortion doctor before he reversed his position and became one of the country's most visible and controversial anti-abortion activists.
Bernard Nathanson, shown here in 1985, was a New York abortion doctor before he reversed his position and became one of the country's most visible and controversial anti-abortion activists. (Photo By J. Scott Applewhite/ap - AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 8:02 PM

Bernard Nathanson, who performed or oversaw more than 60,000 abortions, only to undergo a change of conscience and become one of the most compelling national voices against the procedure, died Feb. 21 of cancer at his home in New York. He was 84.

An obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Nathanson helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and once led the country's busiest abortion clinic.

He trained thousands of doctors to perform abortions and estimated that he personally ended 5,000 pregnancies. One of his patients in the 1960s, he later wrote, was his pregnant girlfriend.

But new technology, including ultrasound imagery and recordings of fetal brain and heart function, caused him to quit providing abortion services.

"For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it," he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "The Hand of God." "I began to do that."

He catapulted himself into the center of the roiling abortion debate of the mid-1980s with a 28-minute film called "The Silent Scream."

The movie uses ultrasound photography to show the real-time abortion of a 12-week-old fetus - grainy images that, according to Dr. Nathanson's narration, show a violent and frightening process.

"Once again, we see the child's mouth wide open in a silent scream," he says as the doctor inserts a suction tube. "For the first time, we are going to watch a child being torn apart, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist."

The film - bolstered by the back story of Dr. Nathanson's high-profile about-face - became a sensation, widely distributed by antiabortion groups and screened at the White House by President Ronald Reagan, who urged members of Congress to see the movie and "move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion."

Abortion rights advocates criticized the film as inaccurate and emotionally manipulative but recognized its influence. In 1985, then-Planned Parenthood of America chairman Allan Rosenfield called the film "the most powerful thing the right-to-life movement has put out."

Dr. Nathanson produced a second film, "Eclipse of Reason," that explicitly portrayed late-term abortions.

In addition to his memoir, he wrote two other books, "Aborting America" (1979), with Richard Ostling, and "Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality" (1983).


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