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Listening to 'Silent Scream'

By Geoffrey C. Upton

One day toward the end of last semester, I opened my mailbox to find a shrink-wrapped video. At first I figured it was another small law school looking to sell me on their beautiful campus in the middle of Pennsylvania. But when I picked it out of my bag a few minutes later to take a closer look, I got suspicious. The video was addressed to me by hand, and the return address was the cryptically-named Tell the Truth Project with only a P.O. box in Milwaukee.

Half-afraid that the thing would blow up in my hands, I carefully unwrapped the box as I walked to class, just to see if there might be more information inside. I figured it would probably be an anti-abortion video or, perhaps, something claiming the Holocaust hadn't happened or that Jews were plotting the destruction of the nation.

On the video the label read: "Silent Scream."

How the folks at Tell the Truth found me I don't know, but I must say they picked a relatively good target for anti-abortion propaganda: I am resolutely pro-choice, but not without reservations; late-term abortions should be banned, I think, so long as appropriate exceptions are made, and waiting periods and other devices to discourage the practice seem reasonable.

Nonetheless, at the time I put aside the video and returned to work on my thesis or procrastinate in less interesting ways. But last week, in a moment of utter boredom (they become more frequent toward the end of Senior Spring), I walked over to my bookshelf, grabbed the video and went downstairs to the common room. In part, however, I wasn't just bored. I wanted to watch this video while still here at college, where there are people around to discuss issues like abortion and where it seems especially useful to think about and debate these big questions.

Ironically, even though I wanted to view "Silent Scream" here at Harvard, in a community of young people grappling with ideas, issues and different viewpoints, I felt nervous and guilty while the video was on--as if I had something to be ashamed of watching this controversial film. Every time I heard someone come into the lobby outside the common room I gripped the remote control, ready to switch the TV back over to VH1. Now, perhaps, I know how conservatives on this campus must sometimes feel.

No one did come in during my private viewing, and I got through all 28 minutes of "Silent Scream" uninterrupted. The film didn't change my views on abortion, but it did make me reconsider whether I had given the issue adequate thought before settling on my pro-choice stance.

The centerpiece of the film is an ultrasound video of the abortion of a 12-week fetus. As the abortion proceeds, the narrator, former abortion doctor Bernard Nathanson, describes the way the fetus is destroyed by the various devices inserted into the uterus. At one point Nathanson claims that the fetus opens its mouth to emit a "silent scream" as it shrinks from the abortionist's tools.

In truth, the ultrasound is so grainy--the film was made in 1984--that Nathanson's assertions about what is going on can hardly be visually verified. More powerful is the introduction, in which Nathanson shows the abortionist's tools and explains how they are used. Anyone would be sickened by his description of how the fetus's skull is crushed with a pair of forceps when it becomes too large to be suctioned out of the uterus.

On the whole, though, the film relies too heavily on shocking graphics to be convincing. The film ends with pictures of well-developed fetuses sitting in bloody buckets, followed by a moralistic speech by Nathanson about the obligation to stop abortions--and a strange claim that abortion clinics are run by organized crime. Still, Nathanson does make a smart move in urging not that all abortions be made illegal, but that women about to undergo the procedure view a film like "Silent Scream" that shows the process in detail. By the time I left the common room, I was ready to consider re-opening the book on my views on abortion.

On the Web I quickly found a Planned Parenthood critique of the film; unsurprisingly, many of the film's central claims are undermined. According to Planned Parenthood, the fetus does not experience pain at 12 weeks, it does not make purposeful movements to flee the abortionist's tools, and it cannot emit a "silent scream." Moreover, the organization claims that Nathanson quotes inaccurate statistics, misuses medical sources and even accelerates the ultrasound video to make the fetus look more traumatized than it is.

It is a little strange that anti-abortion groups have not found a stronger form of propaganda than a 16-year-old, grainy video that has been accused of such inaccuracies. But according to Planned Parenthood, the video is "still wildly popular among anti-abortion zealots" and is shown worldwide to women considering abortions. There is a Web site devoted to it ( that offers clips from the video for all to download.

But maybe it's not so strange after all. The abortion debate remains mired in misinformation and miscommunication, and each side seems to believe the other is unworthy of being brought to the table for discussion. It is up to us in the middle to sustain the abortion discussion so that it does not become a war of bullets and fierce protests, instead of a war of ideas.

Geoffrey C. Upton '99 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column will resume during reading period.

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