Book Review

The Hand of God --- A Journal from Death to Life
by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind

Bernard N. Nathanson, MD

(206 pp., $25.00, ISBN: 0-89526-463-3, Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 2000.)


Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder in 1969 of the National Abortion Rights Action League, helped make abortion legal. As director of New York City's Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, the world's largest abortion clinic, and the nation's most prominent abortionist, he presided over 60,000 abortions.

Nathanson chronicles the abortion movement from 2737 B.C., when the Emperor Shen Yung is said to have decreed abortion as a means of birth control. It seems the practice is nearly as old as the social life of man. He gives an historical account of the use of abortifacients up through the present. Today, 1.5 million fetuses are surgically aborted annually in the United States.

In this memoir, Dr. Nathanson describes his Jewish upbringing, his religious struggles throughout his education and medical training, and the threat he felt when asked to be a character witness at a friend's hearing before Joseph McCarthy's Senatorial Committee.

His first encounter with abortion was the pregnancy of his intended, Ruth. His father urged marriage but sent him five hundred Canadian dollars for an abortion. The search for the abortionist in Catholic Montreal, the resulting hemorrhage, and the outcome are graphically portrayed. His next encounter occurred when he aborted the fetus of a woman he had impregnated during his medical training. He felt no remorse at the time, but rather pride in a job well done.

He characterized the physicians he supervised when he took over the directorship of New York City's Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health as a professional "press gang" mercifully unencumbered with ethical or moral baggage. He was reminded of the work of Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist who examined Nazi doctors who had presided over the mass slaughter in death camps and then returned to ordinary family life at the end of the working day. He termed this phenomenon "doubling," the division of the self into two functioning wholes.

He left his directorship of the clinic in 1972 to devote himself to his obstetric and gynecology practice. At last he had the time and space to think. The hand of God was present, he felt. A marvelous new technology was appearing in hospitals --- ultrasound. He began to observe the fetal heart, see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it and indeed bond with it and love it. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) some ten years ago reported that when ten pregnant women came to an abortion clinic and were shown ultrasound pictures of the fetus they carried, only one went through with the abortion. Nine left the clinic pregnant. That is how powerful the experience is. Nathanson found himself bonding with the unborn.

He wrote an article for this same Journal in 1974 stating that there was no longer any doubt in his mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy. His modest assertions brought the largest response to an article that the NEJM has ever encountered. Most were from the same physicians who had excoriated him for being an abortionist four years earlier, but now, as the abortion pie had grown and they were busy reaping the rewards, they had changed their minds. He was overwhelmed by the vituperation, the phone calls, and the threats against his life and family.

Nathanson now regrets the years he spent traveling around the country lobbying legislatures and politicians to relax their laws (before Roe v. Wade). When he was "pro-abortion," his practice languished because his colleagues would not refer patients to him. He has become a pariah in the medical profession. Now, although he is "pro-life," he remains exiled by the medical establishment.

In The Hand of God, Nathanson also alludes to physician-assisted suicide. Dutch physicians have purportedly euthanized patients, half of whom had not requested the procedure. Early reports from Oregon suggest that the same thing may be happening there. Ultimately, Dr. Nathanson, the abortion doctor who changed his mind, underscores the tragic lack of concern we have for fellow human beings --- whether they are unborn or terminally ill.

This is an extremely important odyssey --- medically, ethically, and finally spiritually --- of the abortion king who did his last about 1978. He considers himself a paradigm for the study of the systematic demise of one system of morality and the painful acquisition of another more coherent and reliable one. It is a must read for every person who will ever be faced with a decision regarding birth or death --- their own or that of someone important to them.

Reviewed by Delbert H. Meyer, MD
Carmichael, CA

Dr. Meyer, a pulmonologist practicing in Sacramento, is on the Clinical Faculty of the University of California Davis School of Medicine, and serves on the editorial boards of Sacramento Medicine, and the Medical Sentinel. E-Mail:

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 2000;5(5):182. Copyright © 2000 Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).