Few people had a better view of the inner workings of the pro-abortion movement in the U.S. than Bernard Nathanson. And what he later revealed about it, particularly about their explicit strategy to target the Catholic Church, is startling.
For those unfamiliar with Nathanson’s extraordinary life, in 1969 he co-founded with Larry Lader the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Nathanson, who was a doctor, also performed abortions and even pioneered new abortion techniques. From 1971-1972, he was the director of the largest abortion clinic in the world in New York. And with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in 1973, just four years after founding NARAL, he celebrated the total victory of his movement.
But then he changed his mind.
[See also: 5 Feminist Pioneers Who Were Against Abortion]
Ultrasound technology came on the medical scene right around the time abortion was legalized. The clear humanity of the previously hidden fetus, now put on full display, started to haunt him. By 1975, he had turned pro-life and resigned from NARAL. Twenty years later, he was baptized into the Catholic Church.
But in 1979, while still an atheist with little interest in religion, he published the book Aborting America, an inside account of the pro-abortion movement he had once led and why he had changed his mind. In it, he reveals NARAL’s secret plan to specifically demonize the Catholic hierarchy.
Abortion Enemy No. 1
Before launching NARAL, Nathanson explains in the book, he and Lader spent months strategizing. Nathanson describes one of these private, unfiltered conversations they had in 1968.
While driving home from a short trip with their families, Lader revealed a deep antipathy toward Catholicism and pinned the Church as their primary enemy:
Then Larry brought out his favorite whipping-boy.
“…and the other thing we’ve got to do is bring the Catholic hierarchy out where we can fight them. That’s the real enemy. The biggest single obstacle to peace and decency throughout all of history.”
He held forth on that theme through most of the drive home. It was a comprehensive and chilling indictment of the poisonous influence of Catholicism in secular affairs from its inception until the day before yesterday. I was far from an admirer of the church’s role in the world chronicle, but his insistent, uncompromising recitation brought to mind the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It passed through my mind that if one had substituted “Jewish” for “Catholic,” it would have been the most vicious anti-Semitic tirade imaginable. I attempted a mild remonstrance.
“But, Larry, the Catholic Church isn’t all bad. Don’t forget that among other things they did more or less keep the intellectual world together in the Dark Ages.”
Even his wife, Joan, a diminutive Scotswoman with a sense of humor and booming laugh, joined me in temperate dissent, and this distaff resistance seemed to annoy him unreasonably:
“Now honey, please. Let’s not regress. I think you and I have covered that subject pretty thoroughly before, so no backsliding if you don’t mind.” She subsided, but I was still alive.
“Well, Larry, what do you think? Is the Catholic hierarchy identical with the anti-abortion forces? Aren’t there any others opposed to abortion?” As I nosed the car into the Lincoln Tunnel traffic, he set the intellectual tone for the next eight years with a single word.
“No.” (pg. 33)
Catholics might take Lader’s assessment as a badge of honor!
But this only partially explains why they decided to target the Catholic hierarchy.
Divide and Conquer
Nathanson recounts another key conversation they had about strategy, in which they decided to intentionally target the Catholic hierarchy, rather than all Catholics.
…Larry read me my last basic lesson in the political primer.
“Historically,” he said after the usual throat-clearing ceremony, “every revolution has to have its villain. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a king, a dictator, or a tsar, but it has to be someone, a person, to rebel against. It’s easier for the people we want to persuade to perceive it this way.”
I conceded that. It was good tactical strategy.
“Now, in our case, it makes little sense to lead a campaign only against unjust laws, even though that’s what we really are doing. We have to narrow the focus, identify those unjust laws with a person or a group of people. A single person isn’t quite what we want, since that might excite sympathy for him. Rather, a small group of shadowy, powerful people. Too large a group would diffuse the focus, don’t you see?”
I nodded. Where was he going?
“There’s always been one group of people in this country associated with reactionary politics, behind-the-scenes manipulation, socially backward ideas. You know who I mean, Bernie.”
Not the Catholics again?
“Well, yes and no.” Throat-clearing again. A heavy thought coming. And I wasn’t wrong. It was his devil theory.
“Not just all Catholics. First of all, that’s too large a group, and for us to vilify them all would diffuse our focus. Secondly, we have to convince liberal Catholics to join us, a popular front as it were, and if we tar them all with the same brush, we’ll just antagonize a few who might otherwise have joined us and be valuable show-pieces for us. No, it’s got to be the Catholic hierarchy. That’s a small enough group to come down on, and anonymous enough so that no names ever have to be mentioned, but everybody will have a fairly good idea whom we are talking about.”
His syntax was as careful and as surgical as his daily shave. It was irrefutable. The only thing that was a little jarring, even to my untutored mind, was that the original nineteenth-century laws in New York and elsewhere had been placed on the books mostly by doctors when there were few Catholic around. I raised that question, hesitantly.
“Bernie, we’re talking politics now. Watch and see how respectful of facts the opposition will be once our campaign gets going. Just listen to the opposition.” (pg. 51-52)
Recognize this strategy in play in our world today?
He points out the Catholic bishops made things easier for NARAL:
For their part, of course, the Catholic bishops were to play right into our hands, by their heavy-handed politicking, making abortion appear to be purely a “Catholic issue” rather than an interreligious one. (pg. 52)
The worst part of this story? The plan worked.
Let this be a lesson to the Church and the pro-life movement. Don’t fall into these same traps again!
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