The Silent Scream

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Recording and contextualizing the science of embryos, development, and reproduction.

Bernard Nathanson released a small film called The Silent Scream. The idea of fetal pain, new to most Americans, and outside of the medical mainstream, attracted broader attention the following January, when Reagan raised it in a high-profile speech to the Annual Convention of Religious Broadcasters , his first address after formally announcing his bid for reelection.

Silent Scream / GLMV

The chief speechwriter in the Reagan White House, Bentley Elliott, who worked on that speech, said in an interview with The Daily Beast that the gathering of religious broadcasters, among them Pat Boone and Pat Robertson, was the ideal occasion for the president to air his antiabortion views. Fetal pain was a much-discussed subject in pro-life circles at the time, said Elliott, and many on the White House staff wanted Reagan to trumpet that life-affirming message.

Many who worked in the administration remember the speech, but not where those exact lines, or the idea of fetal pain, came from. He calls the fetus a child, and asserts its open mouth is shrieking with pain during the procedure. This film, widely seen and far more widely discussed, became a cultural touchstone. Many women felt antagonized, and some demanded to know: where was the woman whose ultrasound footage this was?

The Silent Scream of the Asparagus

A cri de coeur of the pro-life cause, the film reportedly converted many to abandon their support of legal abortion and gave a new sense of momentum and direction to anti-Roe activists, who felt their message was at last being received by a wider audience. The film was screened for workers in the Reagan White House, stoking tension among the ranks.

Reagan himself endorsed the film as a must-see, and aides pursued a plan to distribute copies to Washington lawmakers but stopped when that brought them up against rules on soliciting members of Congress. The response to The Silent Scream , says New, helped the antiabortion movement—which has been split over whether to pursue a nationwide ban or to push the issue in state legislatures—settle successfully on the latter course.

The Silent Scream concludes with Nathanson's statement that as a violent act, abortion must be banned, and people must "stop the killing. Wade —as propaganda, but those opposed to abortion hailed it as revealing. Reagan stated "if every member of Congress could see [ The Silent Scream ], they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion. Critics of the film argued that the fetus could not truly scream or feel pain, as its brain was not yet well developed; medical specialists distinguished between the simple muscle reflexes shown in the video and subjective cognitive behavior, which does not arise until the twenty-fourth week of development.

The Silent Scream | Esquire | SEPTEMBER,

Robert Eiben, who was at the time president of the US National Child Neurology Society, attributed the fetus 's movements during the video to reflex, not subjective experience. Similarly, other leading pediatric neurologists and specialist likened the actions of the fetus to the reflexes of brain-dead individuals, whose feet recoil when touched.


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Despite overwhelming dissent from medical professionals regarding the scientific accuracy of the video and the statements made by Nathanson, anti- abortion advocates offered the work as evidence that the fetus was completely capable of feeling pain. David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life's Political Action Committee, deemed the film as impacting the anti- abortion movement as much as the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had impacted the US abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century.

Others argued that the film elevated the status of the fetus while simultaneously excluding women from the abortion discussion.

Producer of ‘Silent Scream’ anti-abortion film dies

Using the ultrasound as a platform, Nathanson created The Silent Scream as a supposed scientifically based argument against abortion. Despite its varied reception, The Silent Scream sparked people on both sides to more closely analyze the fetus from an empirical standpoint. Keywords: Abortion , ultrasound , Bernard Nathanson. Sources Grimes, William. Nathanson, 84, Dies; Changed Sides on Abortion.


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