Manipulative 'Silent Scream'

THE MAIL

To the Editors of The Crimson:

Kenneth Johnson, one of Harvard's anti-choice "Human Rights Advocates," believes that "The Silent Scream" could "clarify certain medical isasues" surrounding abortion. In fact, the film goes to great lengths to confuse the abortion debate. The narrator of the film is a doctor, complete with white coat and stethescope, lending a deceptive air of medical authority to the views he presents. But rather than a sincere exploration of medical issues, "The Silent Scream" is piece of anti-choice propaganda.

The centerpiece of "The Silent Scream" is an ultrasound film of an abortion, which is purported to depict the fetus opening its mouth "in a silent scream" of pain and fear, proving that the fetus is "just another person, like you and me." In a panel discussion at the University of Washington School of Medicine, obstetricians with extensive experience in ultrasound reported that they could not make out the fetal features and gestures--including the "silent scream" which the narrator described. The type of camera, doctors and technicians agreed, is switched during the procedure to one that provides less resolution, so that here would be greater latitude for the narrator's description of a "life and death struggle."

While the fuzzy ultrasound is being shown, the narrator holds up a plastic doll which is many times larger and more developed than the fetus in the film, deceptively implying that the fetus looks just like the doll. He also says that the fetus is 12 weeks old, while in conventionally used terms (measured by last menstrual period rather than gestation) it is actually 14 weeks old. In the U.S. about 93 percent of all abortions are performed by the 12th week, when the fetus is extremely small and undeveloped. To further confuse the viewer, the film occasionally shows dramatic pictures of fetuses which were stillbirths or were aborted very late in pregnancy. However, the narrator fails to mention this fact, or discuss the difference between a first-trimester fetus and a third-trimester one. Of course, a layperson viewing the film would have little way of recognizing such distortions, and would likely accept the authority of the narrator.

The crux of "The Silent Scream" (is its implied contention that the fetus can sense pain. The Crimson reporter seems to buy this line when she writes that "presumably, the fetus reacts to perceived or potential pain." The film very carefully builds up this impression through visual tricks and manipulative narration. What it lacks, however, is a basis in fact.

Leading pediatric neurologists and neuroembryologists agree that until the third trimester of fetal development (24-36 weeks), the spinal cord is not far enough developed to pass messages to the brain, and the brain itself does not develop until then the cognitive structure needed to perceive pain or aggression or to perform "purposeful action." It is especially irresponsible for the narrator of the movie to assert that a 12-week fetus could experience pain. Dr. Edwin Myer, chairman of the department of pediatric neurology at the Medical Colege of Virginia, says "that the fetus feels pain is a totally ridiculous statement. Pain implies cognition. There is no brain to receive the information."

The fetal movements shown on the ultrasound are thus not reactions to perceptions of pain, aggression, or "imminent destruction," as the film's-narrator asserts. They are simple avoidance reactions, like the reflex of a knee when the doctor taps it. Contrary to the intentionally misleading implications of the film, there is no "silent scream."

"The Silent Scream," far from contributing to the abortion debate, relies on medical non-facts and deliberate manipulation to obscure the real issues. How we decide the abortion issue ultimately comes down to how much we respect women as independent and free human beings. The film shows astonishingly litle respect for the lives of grown women. A uterus is not a "sanctuary" for a fetus, just a bunch of muscles surrounding a fetus, as the narrator suggests; it is part of a woman's body and of her person. To subordinate her to the interests of a fetus is to turn her into a baby-machine.

Women will never be able to control their lives in our society until they can decide when and if they will bear children. This knowledge drove hundreds of thousands--possibly millions--of women to seek desperate, dangerous illegal abortions before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. Each year thousands of women, a disproportionate number of them poor and minority, were killed or mutilated by "back-alley" abortionists and self-induced abortions performed with coathangers and knitting needles. As Judy Goldsmith pointed out, those who lived before 1973 remember that the screams of women were not silent. Kim Ladin '87