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Medicine: Silent Scream

4 minute read
Claudia Wallis

The voice is assured, unequivocal; the speaker wears a white lab coat, the mantle of medical authority. New technologies, intones New York City Obstetrician Bernard Nathanson, “have convinced us beyond question that the unborn child is simply another member of the human community. Now, for the first time,” he continues, “we have the technology to see abortion from the victim’s vantage point. We are going to watch a child being torn apart, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist.”

So begins the film Silent Scream, a 28-minute, shock-the-viewer indictment of abortion. The movie, distributed by American Portrait Films of Anaheim, Calif., depicts through ultrasound imaging what happens in the womb during the abortion of a twelve-week-old fetus. The images are grainy and vague, but Narrator Nathanson provides explanation. “The child,” he says, “senses aggression in its sanctuary” and moves in an “agitated” manner away from the surgical instruments in a “pathetic attempt to escape.” Its heart rate $ increases as it “senses mortal danger,” and, he notes, pointing to a fuzzy image, it opens its mouth in a horrible “silent scream.”

The film has been embraced as an effective propaganda weapon by right-to-life organizations. “It may win the battle for us,” says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, president of the Moral Majority. In January, even President Reagan gave it high praise. “It’s been said that if every member of Congress could see that film,” Reagan declared, “they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.” Since then, the movie has in fact been sent to every member of Congress and the Supreme Court. Pro-life organizations are financing its distribution (at $100 a videocassette) to state legislators.

Yet among many doctors–especially Nathanson’s fellow obstetricians–the film has provoked an outcry. “The problem is that it is factually misleading and unfair,” says Dr. Richard Berkowitz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. Special effects may further the deception, according to Dr. John Hobbins of Yale School of Medicine. Early shots of the fetus seem to be run at a slow speed, but when the abortion instruments are introduced, the film is speeded up, creating the illusion that the fetus is thrashing about in alarm. Actually, says Hobbins, “the fetus appears to be acting in a perfectly normal fashion. It’s just technical flimflam.” Also misleading is the size of the ultrasound image and the doll- like model used in some scenes to represent the fetus. It gives the impression that the twelve-week-old fetus is as big as a full-term baby, when in fact it is less than 2 in. long.

Finally, experts in fetal development argue that at twelve weeks a fetus cannot move “purposefully,” as Nathanson asserts, nor can it perceive danger; the cerebral cortex, which coordinates perception and thought, is not yet developed. As for the silent scream, says Johns Hopkins Neurobiologist David Bodian, doctors have no evidence that a twelve-week-old fetus can feel pain, though “there is a possibility of a reflex movement” in response to stimuli like surgical instruments. Hobbins suggests that the dramatic scream may have been a fetal yawn, because “the fetus spends lots of time with its mouth open.” Indeed, he says, the gaping mouth in the blurry film may not have been a mouth at all, but the space between the fetal chin and chest.

On Capitol Hill last week, pro-choice activists were responding with a media campaign of their own. Their weapon: a clip from a CBS Morning News show featuring a panel of five physicians, Hobbins and Berkowitz among them, tearing into the film. Doubtless Silent Scream has given pro-life forces new momentum, says Ron Fitzsimmons, a lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League, and “it has forced us to respond.”

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