The Silent Scream

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This article is about the 1984 abortion documentary. For other uses, see Silent Scream.
The Silent Scream
The Silent Scream (1984 film).jpg
Original 1984 VHS cover
Directed by Jack Duane Dabner
Produced by Jack Duane Dabner, executive producer: Donald S. Smith
Written by Donald S. Smith, founder of Crusade for Life[1]
Narrated by Bernard N. Nathanson
Music by James Gabriel Stipech
Cinematography Roger Boller
Edited by Dan R. Fouts
Distributed by American Portrait Films
Release dates
  • 1984 (1984)
Running time
28 mins.
Country USA
Language English

The Silent Scream is a 1984 anti-abortion educational film directed by Jack Duane Dabner and narrated by Bernard Nathanson, an obstetrician, NARAL Pro-Choice America founder, and abortion provider turned pro-life activist, and produced in partnership with the National Right to Life Committee.[2] The film depicts the abortion process via ultrasound and shows an abortion taking place in the uterus. During the abortion process, the fetus is described as appearing to make outcries of pain and discomfort. The video has been a popular tool used by the pro-life campaign in arguing against abortion,[3] although it has been criticized as misleading by members of the medical community.[4]


Nathanson, an obstetrician, serves as both the medical expert and narrator of the film, describing the events of the abortion as they unfold. He begins by stating the viewer is about to witness the "dazzling" new "science of fetology" and to witness an abortion in real time "from the victim's vantage point."[5] The film compiled a series of still ultrasound images of the abortion of a twelve-week-old fetus, which Nathanson describes as a child, spliced together to create the video.

Nathanson displays the instruments used in a typical abortion and calmly demonstrates how each instrument is introduced into a woman’s body during an abortion. Nathanson points out that the head, even at 12 weeks' gestation, will be too large to enter the suction device and shows how forceps are used to crush the skull, where brain waves have been active for six weeks.

Nathanson then sits by a television screen showing ultrasound images of a fetus in its mother’s womb. As the images of an abortion appear on the screen, Nathanson describes step-by-step what is taking place, pointing out new instruments that are introduced into the womb. The suction cannula is described as a lethal weapon that will "dismember, crush, and destroy" what Nathanson refers to as the child. Nathanson goes on to narrate that the fetus is unprepared for the invasion of the womb and attempts to escape the cannula, describing it as a "child being torn apart ... by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist."[6] He notes how the fetus' heartbeat speeds up and how it seems to open its mouth in a "chilling silent scream."[6] The film culminates in the now-famous "silent scream" which is accompanied with shrill musical accompaniment.[5]

Nathanson concludes the film by discussing the implications behind hiding this material from women. He believes the film is necessary in keeping women informed on matters concerning abortion. This was the first time the images of an aborted fetus were given an electronic platform, as opposed to the printed form of the imagery used in prior years.[2]


The Silent Scream was viewed by its producer and by the pro-life lobby as a tool capable of swaying public opinion against abortion.[4] The film premiered on televangelist Jerry Falwell's program,[2] and aired five times over the span of a month on major television networks.[5] The film was later distributed widely to high schools and colleges and, according to TIME, "embraced as an effective propaganda weapon by right-to-life organizations." The film was popular among people who opposed abortion, even being shown at the White House by then-President Ronald Reagan.[7] Reagan said that "if every member of Congress could see that film, they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion."[6] The film's producers reportedly planned to send copies to every member of the United States Congress and to the Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States upon its release.[4] Some opponents of abortion touted the film as proof that their opposition was science-based.[2]

Medical community[edit]

Many members of the medical community were critical of the film, describing it as misleading and deceptive. Richard Berkowitz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, described the film as "factually misleading and unfair".[4] John Hobbins of the Yale School of Medicine called the film's use of special effects deceptive, a form of "technical flimflam." He pointed out that the film of the ultrasound is initially run at slow speed, but that it is sped up when surgical instruments are introduced to give the impression that "the fetus is thrashing about in alarm." Hobbins questioned the titular "scream", noting that "the fetus spends lots of time with its mouth open", that the "scream" may have been a yawn, and also that "mouth" identified on the blurry ultrasound in the film may in fact have been the space between the fetal chin and chest.[4]

Fetal development experts argued that, contrary to Nathanson's assertion in the film, a fetus cannot perceive danger or make purposeful movements. David Bodian, a neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, stated that doctors had no evidence that a twelve-week-old fetus could feel pain, but noted the possibility of a reflex movement by a fetus in response to external stimuli such as surgical instruments. The size of the ultrasound image and of the fetus model used was also misleading, appearing to show a fetus the size of a full-term baby, while in actuality a twelve-week-old fetus is under two inches long.[4]

Pro-choice community[edit]

Ron Fitzsimmons, of the National Abortion Rights Action League, stated that "it has forced us to respond."[4] In 1985, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) produced a brochure in response, titled The Facts Speak Louder than "The Silent Scream", which described the video as "riddled with scientific, medical, and legal inaccuracies as well as misleading statements and exaggerations".[8][9][10] PPFA convened what it described as "a panel of internationally known and respected physicians" to review and critique the film, and issue a rebuttal of the claims made, including fetal pain, purposeful movement, and the titular "scream."[7][10] PPFA also produced its own film, in which women, doctors, and other experts responded to the claims made in The Silent Scream,[11] and which criticized it as portraying pregnant women as childlike and unfit to hold reproductive rights.[12] Author and journalist Katie Roiphe described the video as "extremely suspect propaganda" and "essentially a horror movie that used frank distortions."[3] Political scientist and pro-choice activist Rosalind P. Petchesky described "its visual distortions and verbal fraud" and said it "belongs in the realm of cultural representation rather than... medical evidence."[2]

Nathanson accused his critics of making excuses. On Nightline, Nathanson responded to a doctor from Cornell Medical College with the comment, "If pro-choice advocates think that they’re going to see the fetus happily sliding down the suction tube waving and smiling as it goes by, they’re in for a truly paralyzing shock."[13] Nathanson later called pro-choice activists' response to the film "clever," in that he said they focused on whether the fetus feels pain during an abortion. Nathanson observed that the film had made no claims about fetal pain, so "the transmogrification of the brutality depicted in the video into a rather jejeune argument about the ability of the fetus to feel pain was a remarkably astute pro-choice strategy."[14]


The Silent Scream has been credited with winning "many converts to the pro-life cause" by its graphic scenes that shocked many viewers.[15] The film helped "to shift the public focus from the horror stories of women who had suffered back-alley abortions to the horror movie of a fetus undergoing one."[16] The film has been very important for the pro-life movement and is widely available for purchase or download.[17]

Nathanson later produced a follow-up film, Eclipse of Reason, depicting a late-term abortion procedure known as intact dilation and extraction.[13]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack (1987). "Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction". Feminist Studies 13 (2): 263–92. doi:10.2307/3177802. JSTOR 3177802. 
  3. ^ a b Roiphe, Katie (2008-01-01). "Choice words". Guardian Unlimited (Guardian News and Media). Retrieved 2008-01-01. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Wallis, Claudia; Banta, Kenneth W. (March 25, 1985). "Medicine: Silent Scream". TIME. Retrieved March 17, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c Pickering, B., & Lake, R. 1999. "Visual Images as (opposed to?) Reason: The Argument of Eclipse of Reason." Conference Proceedings – National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), 253-261. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.[verification needed]
  6. ^ a b c Zintl, Robert T.; Lesh, Carolyn (February 4, 1985). "Abortion: New Heat Over an Old Issue". Time. 
  7. ^ a b DeParle, Jason (April 1989). "Beyond the legal right; why liberals and feminists don't like to talk about the morality of abortion". The Washington Monthly. Retrieved 2008-01-01. 
  8. ^ Dubow, Sara (2010). Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America. Oxford University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-532343-6. 
  9. ^ Stafford, N. (2011). "Bernard Nathanson". BMJ 342: d1358. doi:10.1136/bmj.d1358. 
  10. ^ a b "The Facts Speak Louder than "The Silent Scream"" (PDF) (Press release). Planned Parenthood Federation of America. March 2002 [1985]. 
  11. ^ Frey, Lawrence R. (2002). New directions in group communication. SAGE. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-7619-1281-1. 
  12. ^ Matthews, Sandra; Wexler, Laura (2000). Pregnant pictures. Routledge. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-521-30014-8. 
  13. ^ a b Grimes, W. (Feb 21, 2011). "B. N. Nathanson, 84, Dies; Changed Sides on Abortion". New York Times. 
  14. ^ Nathanson, Bernard (2001). The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind. Regnery. pp. 141–42. ISBN 978-0-89526-174-8. 
  15. ^ New, Michael J. (Feb 22, 2011). "The Pro-Life Legacy of Dr. Bernard Nathanson". National Review. 
  16. ^ Gibbs, Nancy (Dec 6, 2006). "Can a Fetus Feel Pain?". TIME. Retrieved Sep 10, 2011. 
  17. ^ McBride, D. (2008). Abortion in the United States: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 278. ISBN 978-1-59884-098-8. 

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