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Hand of God.

A journey from death to life by the abortion doctor who changed his mind Washington: Regnery, 1996. 206 pages.

REVIEWED BY DAVID DOOLEY

Dr. Nathanson begins by saying that he knows the issue of abortion as perhaps no one else does:

I know every facet of abortion. I was one of its accoucheurs; I helped nurture the creature in its infancy by feeding it great draughts of blood and money; I guided it through its adolescence as it grew fecklessly out of control. Abortion is now a monster so unimaginably gargantuan that even to think of stuffing it back into its cage (having fattened on the bodies of thirty million humans) is ludicrous beyond words. Yet that is our charge - a herculean endeavor.

We live in a barbaric age, he says, an age of the abjuring of moral values; and he was one of those who helped usher in this age. In 1968, he was one of the three founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League; he ran the largest abortion clinic in the United States; he has performed thousands of abortions himself. It was partly his father's fault; he was "a formidable, dominant force in my life" and in many ways "forged the ruthless, nihilistic pagan attitudes and beliefs" which led him to unleash the abortion monster.

His father had abandoned Jewish Orthodoxy, and the son says, "I had not a seedling of faith to nourish me." So he became "a stiff-backed Jewish atheist" whose first encounter with abortion took place when he was a medical student at McGill and got his girlfriend pregnant. Fifty years later, he still remembers how her tears "seemed to cascade from some inner inexhaustible reservoir" when he met her after she had undergone a very messy abortion procedure. This did not discourage him, however, from going further into the satanic world of abortion. When he was just out of residency in obstetrics and gynecology, he actually performed an abortion on a woman who was carrying his own child. What was it like? As he describes it, it was all aseptic and clinical: "She was put under anesthesia in the operating room of a major teaching hospital; I scrubbed my hands, gowned and gloved, chatted briefly with the scrub nurse, sat down on a little metal stool"-and so he describes, in the most matter-of-fact way, how he changed from one instrument to another until the suction was turned on, the procedure was finished, and he examined the shards of tissue to assure himself that nothing had been left behind. Did he not feel anything? Did he not feel sad at having destroyed his own child? He assures us that he had no feeling aside from satisfaction at having done a thoroughly professional job. This is probably the most harrowing episode in the book: a revelation of how it is possible for a man to turn himself into a monster.

Nathanson's involvement in the politics of abortion began when he met another "perfunctory Jew," a cadaverous-looking man who had just published a book tearing down all the arguments against abortion. By 1969, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws was in being, and it was doing its best to spread lies about the number of deaths from botched abortions. There were perhaps three hundred such deaths annually in the United States, but NARAL multiplied that into 5,000. Following the passing of new legislation, New York became the abortion capital of the Eastern United States, and Nathanson became director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, the largest abortion "clinic" in the Western world.

In a chapter on the abortionist, Nathanson tells a lot of horror stories, ranging from the birth of babies with limbs missing to the deaths of women from botched abortion. Another chapter is devoted to The Silent Scream; he insists once again that this film of an abortion procedure was not altered in any way, and repeats the story of what happened to the doctor who performed the abortion. Dr. Jay Kellinson, was so affected by what the tapes showed that he never did another abortion. In a chapter on the selling of body parts, Nathanson cites a report which shows that many questions need to be answered about the use of fetal brain tissue for Parkinson's patients. In a chapter on abortion and violence, he contends that the result of abortion has been a cultural war comparable to that over slavery in the 19th century. And in a discussion of the personhood of the human fetus, he rejects such subjective criteria as conscious awareness and ability to feel pain, and chooses instead what he calls the "vector theory of life." As one writer puts it, "It is not birth, marriage or death but gastrulation which is the most important time of our life." Gastrulation is defined as being the splitting of the embryonic mass of cells into three well-defined layers from which all structures and organs derive-at thirteen or fourteen days after conception. From this point on, there is a vector of life: "a direction and velocity of life forces that is perfectly programmed, irresistibly logical, and immutably fixed in time and space." The chapter ends with praise of the One who designed this magnificent master plan. Nathanson does indeed see the hand of God in the turn his career has taken. Looking back on the years he spent in the grisly abortion industry, he is struck by the uncritical nature of the task he and his associates set for themselves - their unquestioned assumption that abortion was for the best. But there came a time when he reached the point of exhaustion after doing three jobs at once and failing to spend time with his family - and he resigned from the clinic. Then he had time to think. As he explains in Chapter 10, a marvelous new technology was coming along - ultrasound - and this put life in the womb in a new light. He wrote an article which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1974 really questioning everything he had been doing. "There is no longer serious doubt in my mind," he said, "that human life exists in the womb from the very onset of pregnancy ..." He also said that life is a continuum from conception on; that human life is taken in abortion; and that denial of this is the crassest kind of moral evasiveness.

He did two or three abortions in 1978, and the last one in 1979. In a ten-year transitional period between 1978 and 1988, he felt that the burden of sin was becoming more insistent. Trained diagnostician as he was, he began to analyse the patient's condition, the patient being himself: he had been cast adrift in a limitless sea of sensual freedom, with only a minimal concept of justice, and a stultified sense of decency. "St. Augustine spoke most starkly of my existential torment, but, with no St. Monica to show me the way, I was seized by an unremitting black despair." He faced what Albert Camus once called the central question of the 20th century: whether or not to commit suicide.

At the same time he was moving deeper into the pro-life movement, and eventually one much-maligned branch of it, Operation Rescue, made a profound impression on him. He was struck by the fact that on bitterly cold mornings, with pro-choicers hurling abuse at them, the police surrounding them, the media unsympathetic, the judiciary jailing them, the protesters prayed and sang and radiated love and joy. For the first time in his adult life, he began to entertain seriously the notion of God. Though he saw his past as a bog of sin and evil, religion held out a shimmering sliver of hope to him. Reading strengthened this, especially Karl Stern's Pillar of Fire, the story of his conversion. But Nathanson was reluctant to take the final step himself: "Like Simone Weil, I have found myself forever on the threshold of blessed surrender of faith but always reluctant to take the last irrevocable step." The end of the book leaves him hovering on the brink, not having taken the last step which we know he has since taken. The last sentence in the book is a quotation which is an expression of faith, not doubt:

"And there was no doubt about it," Stern wrote, "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." Only the last chapter of this book deals specifically with the story of conversion indicated by the title. Yet the story of how this "perfunctory Jew," this "stiff-backed atheist," had to face the facts of what abortion is and does, and developed a conscience which forced him to stop the killing, is a very moving one. The book emphasizes how horrible and how degrading abortion actually is, and how fundamental religious belief is to the conviction that all human life is worthy of respect. So it is an important book to know about and to read.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1521
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