Bernard Nathanson discovered 'the humanity of the unborn baby': but there’s more to it than that
Everyone knows that the Church is against abortion. But how completely do we always understand why, for Catholics, this is such a major issue? I begin with a story from the National Catholic Register:
“NEW YORK — Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, an obstetrician who oversaw the performance of about 75,000 abortions before becoming a leading pro-life advocate and a convert to the Catholic faith, died at his home in New York Feb. 21 after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 84.
…In his 1996 autobiography The Hand of God, he told the story of his journey from pro-abortion to pro-life, saying that viewing images from the new ultrasound technology in the 1970s convinced him of the humanity of the unborn baby…
He noted, regretfully, “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age”.
That phrase of Dr Nathanson’s, “the humanity of the unborn baby”, is obviously enough the first part of what we need to understand. But that’s not enough. Being pro-life isn’t just a matter of being against abortion; it’s a positive, not negative, set of beliefs: it’s about knowing with certainty (which not everyone does) that all life is a priceless gift. And we begin with ourselves: with gratitude for our own life.
This gratitude is a distinguishing mark of all holy men and women. I think (as some of my readers may have noticed) that G K Chesterton is one of them, and that there is a strong case for his beatification and ultimate canonisation. His was one of the great prophetic voices of the 20th century: prophetic in both senses of the word, that is; he foresaw many things then still in the future and he also had a deep insight into what was wrong with the world in which he lived. This in turn had its origins in a profound sense of what human life ought to be.
And that all began with his gratitude for the gift of life. “I hung onto religion,” he wrote in his autobiography, “by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all”. Seventy years before the pro-life movement Chesterton wrote this early poem, entitled “By the Babe Unborn”, about the wonder of life: in it, he imagines a child in the womb longing for birth:
If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,
If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.
In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.
Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.
I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.
They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.
A few years later, he attacked the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, one of whose key essays was entitled “The emptiness of existence”, and whose deep and systematic pessimism was to have such a massive influence on the literature and thought of the 20th century, by evoking once more his own key image of “the babe unborn”. Schopenhauer, wrote Chesterton, “had not that highest order of imagination which can see the things which surround us on every side with purified and primitive eyes. Had he possessed this he would have felt as we all dimly feel that a child unborn, offered the chance and risk of so vivid and magical an experience as existence, could no more resist taking it than a living child could resist opening a cupboard in which, he was told, were toys of which he could not even dream. He did not realise that the question of whether life contains a preponderance of joy or sorrow is entirely secondary to the fact that life is an experience of a unique and miraculous character, the idea of missing which would be intolerable if it were for one moment conceivable.”
Nobody has ever better summed up why Catholics don’t speak of their beliefs as being merely anti-abortion, but as being “pro-life”, an infinitely vaster conception. When Chesterton died, in the 1930s, abortion was still thought of, certainly by Christians of whatever persuasion, as unthinkably wicked. This was also generally true of secular public opinion, though there were, of course, exceptions: the Nazis believed in it, so did Adolf Hitler’s gushing English admirer, Marie Stopes.
By the 1960s, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and then of Stalinism and other human monstrosities, there had been a great movement towards Schopenhauer’s vision of the futility of human life, towards believing in his words that “in a world like this … it is impossible to imagine happiness”: and one result was the comparative ease with which ordinary men and women were more and more persuaded that the taking of life in the womb was a matter of very much less consequence than their parents and grandparents had supposed.
That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why the Church is so insistently (the secular world thinks obsessively and unreasonably) hostile to the taking of unborn life: because Catholics believe – more fundamentally than in anything else – in God’s Creation of this world and in the fact that, in Chesterton’s words, life in it “is an experience of a unique and miraculous character, the idea of missing which would be intolerable if it were for one moment conceivable”. The deepest tragedy of the 20th century is that for so many men and women, this dreadful notion became not merely “conceivable” (was ever a word used with a more poignant irony?) but normal.