A Safe Place


Dr. Bernard Nathanson, once the foremost abortionist in the United States and then perhaps abortion’s most effective opponent, died on Tuesday at age 84. The Washington Post obituary mentioned that his 28-minute film, The Silent Scream, released in 1985, “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.’”

Therein lies a tale in which I participated when I met Dr. Nathanson in the White House back in 1985. At the time, I was working for Ambassador Faith Ryan Whittlesey, assistant to the president for public liaison. My brief included the pro-life movement. We had gotten wind of Dr. Nathanson’s film, and I called his producer to see if there was any possibility of getting 450 copies to be sent to every member of Congress, after showing it in the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

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Technically, it was illegal for us to solicit from the White House, so we would simply let the need be known and hope for a generous offer. It came immediately. The only problem was how to make so many copies in so short a time, since we wanted to screen the film on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday (what better occasion for a pro-life event?). The producer put on a 24-hour-per-day shift to get the job done.

Meanwhile, Whittlesey went to work to get President Reagan to make an appearance. The scheduling office declined. It’s highly probable that the office did not show him the request and declined it on its own, as it often did. We next tried Vice President George Bush — no, again. Whittlesey then invited Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff. While attempting to get an answer, Whittlesey grabbed one of Regan’s assistants in the hallway and told him of the event at which she wanted Regan to appear. Regan’s assistants were known as the “mice” for their timidity when it came to the president’s moral agenda. The mouse in question quivered and responded, “But that’s controversial.” Whittlesey glared back at him and said sharply, “No, it’s not. It’s the president’s policy.” Regan said no. Finally, we asked Pat Buchanan, then White House communications director, but he too declined.


We were well aware that this event would cause a sensation, if not an uproar. That is why we were doing it — to bring maximum attention to The Silent Scream. The movie deployed ultrasound photography to show the real-time abortion of a twelve-week-old unborn child. It is a snuff film, recording the actual killing of an unborn baby. Dr. Nathanson’s narration stated:

Once again, we see the child’s mouth wide open in a silent scream [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.

When I first screened the film, I was shaken to my core and wept. No one who sees it can ever again deny what an abortion does to a child. The film is a life-changing experience.

There was, of course, a squad of White House staff dedicated to protecting President Reagan from what he believed in and, by extension, from staff members like us who shared those beliefs. It was a typical act of courage on Whittlesey’s part to push this event forward. Though not a Catholic at the time, she was, and is, a ferocious pro-life advocate. Whittlesey had a special brilliance in accumulating political clout, not for the purposes of her own advancement, but for expending on the moral issues in which she and the president believed so deeply. Therefore, Whittlesey prepared to headline the event herself and to introduce Dr. Nathanson before showing the film.

Meanwhile, we drafted a letter from the president to each member of Congress to accompany the videotapes. As was usual, we had to submit the letter to the White House counsel’s office for clearance. Counsel advised us that the letter could not be sent, because the White House did not have “gift receipt authority” to accept the video cassettes as a donation. Neither was there a budget to purchase the tapes. Wondering how to get around this problem, we called the great pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde. Henry immediately said, “No problem; send the tapes to me with the text of the letter. I will sign it and send the tapes to every member.” We suspected that this would be a distinction without a difference and that few in the press would notice that the tapes were not actually sent by the president.

Yet there was another obstacle to overcome. On the early morning of February 12, the senior White House staff met and discovered to its great discomfort that this highly controversial event was on the schedule for that afternoon. The “mice” contingent wanted to cancel the screening. But then it had to consider the damage that the cancellation would cause, because the event had already been announced and was open to the press corp. How would they explain the cancellation, other than by their own cowardice? A cancellation would also not sit well with the pro-life movement or the president’s conservative supporters. Buchanan spoke up in favor of continuing with the screening. We went ahead. (Remarkably, Whittlesey and I were accused of “sneaking” this event onto the White House calendar, even though all the principals in the White House had previously been invited to participate in it.)

nathanson2Whittlesey also had a brilliant sense of theater. She instructed me to have the videotapes assembled in two giant pyramids on either side of the stage. This would give the press a “visual.” And indeed it did: When we opened the room for the event, I saw cameramen on their knees in front of these pyramids, bowing up and down as they filmed, as if in act of worship to some ancient Egyptian deity.

The room filled to bursting. Whittlesey then gave a Lincoln’s Day oration that would have made that president proud. Dr. Nathanson, who was there with his wife, stepped forward to introduce the film. His manner was mild and modest. He did not speak polemically. If not exactly clinical in his presentation, he was reserved. He did not call attention to himself; he let the film speak for itself. Half an hour later, the stunned audience, press included, sat silently, absorbing the horror of what it had just witnessed.

That night, all the evening national network news programs led with The Silent Scream report. It was a big story. No one had noticed the switch from the president to Congressman Hyde regarding the actual conveyance of the tapes, and most reported that the president had sent each member of Congress the film.


I did not have any personal contact with Dr. Nathanson after this event. However, I was deeply touched by his answer to a member of the audience who asked him if he believed in God, and how he dealt with the guilt of all the abortions he had performed before his change of heart. He said that he was an atheist and was struggling with the burden of what he had done. I knew from experience that atheism was not a shield from guilt. An atheist female friend of mine admitted to having two abortions, after which she said, “God will never forgive me.” All of sudden, there was God. Of course, I told her that her statement was the only thing God would not forgive; He would forgive the abortions. I resolved on that Lincoln’s Day to pray for Bernard Nathanson every day and tried very hard to keep that promise.

He continued to struggle with the guilt and finally came to believe in God. “I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent,” he wrote. “I have such heavy moral baggage to drag into the next world that failing to believe would condemn me to an eternity perhaps more terrifying than anything Dante envisioned.”

In December 1996, after receiving instruction from Rev. C. J. McCloskey, Dr. Bernard Nathanson was received into the Catholic Church by that champion of life, John Cardinal O’Connor, in a private Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Regarding his baptism, Dr. Nathanson said, “I was in a real whirlpool of emotion, and then there was this healing, cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place.”

May God rest his soul in everlasting peace, and may his work to end what he called “this barbaric age” of abortion prosper till all God’s children are in a “safe place.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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