The Silent Scream is an anti-abortion film released in 1984 by American Portrait Films, then based in Brunswick, Ohio. The film was created and narrated by Bernard Nathanson, an obstetrician, and gynecologist from New York, and it was produced by Crusade for Life, an evangelical anti-abortion organization. In the video, Nathanson narrates ultrasound footage of an abortion of a twelve-week-old fetus, claiming that the fetus opened its mouth in what Nathanson calls a silent scream during the procedure.
As a result of Nathanson’s anti-abortion stance in the film, The Silent Scream contributed to the abortion debate in the 1980s. From 1970 to 1972 Nathanson had directed in New York City, New York the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, which he called the largest abortion facility in the western world at that time, and he claimed to help found the National Abortion Rights Action League in New York City.
Though he had previously performed abortions, by 1982 Nathanson opposed the procedure, owing his changed stance to the technology of ultrasound, which allowed observation of fetuses during abortions. He created the film as a statement against abortion, stating that any form of violence should be opposed, including those against a fetus. The Silent Scream begins in Nathanson’s office, where he first informs the viewer that he is an obstetrician and a gynecologist and that he had previously performed thousands of abortions.
He then discusses ultrasound technology, the development of which changed his outlook on the abortion procedure. Touting the ability of the ultrasound to show live images of the fetus while in utero, Nathanson directs the audience to a monitor on which he outlines the body of the fetus, pointing to and naming specific body parts. Nathanson then explains how a medical abortion is performed, presenting to the audience the various surgical instruments used during the procedure. During the explanation, he focuses specifically on the tool called the suction tip, which he says vacuums the fetus out of the uterus. Nathanson then returns to the monitor, where he commences his narration of the ultrasound video of an abortion.
During the procedure, Nathanson points out that as the suction tip moves toward the fetus on the screen, the fetus becomes more agitated and attempts to escape the tip. Once the amniotic sac is punctured, he claims “we can see the child’s mouth wide open in a silent scream.” Nathanson tells the viewer that the person who had conducted the procedure refused to perform any more abortions after watching the video and that the mother similarly reversed her position on abortion. In the film’s final minutes, Nathanson walks and talks in a park.
He accuses the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood, both founded in New York City, in addition to their “co-conspirators in the abortion industry,” of sheltering women from the realities of abortion. The Silent Scream concludes with Nathanson’s statement that as a violent act, abortion must be banned, and people must “stop the killing.” Pro-choice groups deemed the film—circulated a decade after the US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade (1973)—as propaganda, but those opposed to abortion hailed it as revealing.
American Portrait Films sent a copy of the work to all members of US Congress, the nine US Supreme Court Justices, and US President Ronald Reagan; additionally, the studio sold greater than three thousand copies within two months of its release. Reagan stated, “if every member of Congress could see The Silent Scream, they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.”
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