The Silent Scream, and Planned Parenthood’s Response

This will be a rambling post about the abortion issue.  I’ll accept comments, as long as they address the points that I discuss and refrain from abusive or ad hominem attacks.

I came across a YouTube video that was from The Silent Scream, a 1984 anti-abortion documentary hosted by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a doctor who converted from being pro-choice to being pro-life.  In the video, Dr. Nathanson shows an ultrasound of the abortion of a twelve-week-old fetus.  You can watch the video here.  While showing the ultrasound, Dr. Nathanson narrates that the fetus is violently resisting the abortion: that it is purposely making agitated movements in response to the suction tip and the suction, and that its heart rate is increasing. (In this post, I’ll use the pronoun “it” for the fetus, for Dr. Nathanson does so, too, in his narration.)

Some friends of mine were telling me that this video was fictional and was propaganda, and my initial response was, “Which part?”  Was their problem with the ultrasound itself, or with the doctor’s narration of what was going on during the abortion?  Through wikipedia’s article on The Silent Scream, I found Planned Parenthood’s response to the video, which you can read here.

Essentially, Planned Parenthood argues that, contrary to Dr. Nathanson’s narration, a twelve-week-old fetus does not feel pain at that stage and technically does not have the capacity to scream, nor is the fetus’s heart-rate increasing dramatically.  Planned Parenthood also does not believe that the fetus in the video was making purposeful movements in response to the abortion.  I’ll quote what it says:

“At this stage of pregnancy, all fetal movement is reflexive in nature rather than purposeful, since the latter requires cognition, which is the ability to perceive and know. For cognition to occur, the cortex (gray matter covering the brain) must be present, as well as myelinization (covering sheath) of the spinal cord and attached nerves, which is not the case…What is termed ‘frantic activity’ by the fetus is a reflex response of the fetus resulting from movement of the uterus and its contents induced by operator manipulation of the suction curette or the ultrasound transducer on the abdomen. This same type of response would likely occur with any external stimulus. A one-cell organism such as an amoeba will reflexively move or display a withdrawal reaction when touched. In addition, experts in ultrasonography and film technology have concluded that the videotape of the abortion was deliberately slowed down and subsequently speeded up to create an impression of hyperactivity.”

Planned Parenthood is arguing at least four things here: (1.) that the fetus at twelve weeks does not have the mental capability to purposefully respond, meaning that its responses are reflexes, not purposeful responses; (2.) that the fetus is moving reflexively in response to the uterus’ movement, which is due to the suction currette or the ultrasound transducer, meaning that the fetus’ movement is not due to any purposeful response, fear, or pain on its part; (3.) that an amoeba, too, displays a “withdrawal reaction when it is touched”, yet it presumably is not making a purposeful reaction (or so I assume Planned Parenthood is arguing here); and (4.) that the video has been slowed down and speeded up in areas to “create an impression” that the fetus is moving hyperactively.

I have a variety of responses:

1.  As you can read in the biography of Dr. Nathanson, he was once a pro-choice activist, but he converted to the pro-life cause.  Would that kind of person deliberately distort a video for propagandistic purposes?  Or would he, as a doctor, deliberately say things that are not true—-about whether the fetus can feel pain, or make purposeful reactions?  Are there different scientific opinions about what the fetus can and cannot do, or is there consensus on that issue?

I think that Dr. Nathanson is sincere in his beliefs, for he converted to them from the opposite point-of-view, for some reason.  But was his reason for converting different from what he is talking about in the film?  Could he have become pro-life because, say, the fetus looked human to him, and he then decided to persuade others to oppose abortion by exaggerating what is occurring on the ultrasound?

2.  I have to admit that, when I first watched the video, I thought that the fetus was resisting the abortion.  I figured that any living thing would not like being prodded or crushed, and so that must apply to the fetus.  But Planned Parenthood presents an alternative view as to what is going on.  A similar situation would be the Terry Schiavo case: When I (and Bill Frist) saw Terry on television, she appeared to be conscious and to make purposeful reactions to the people around her.  But doctors, and even the post-mortem examination of her brain, concluded that she actually was not doing so: that those were reflexes, not purposeful responses.  How much, then, can we trust our instincts and our senses?

3.  What I appreciated about Planned Parenthood’s response is that it actually talked about the fetus.  To be honest, talking with a lot of pro-choicers can be like beating my head against a wall.  They often reduce the issue to a matter of a woman’s choice.  But, if the twelve-week-old fetus feels pain and is being murdered through abortion, then should that abortion be a matter of choice?  We don’t allow murder, after all.  That’s why I’ve had little tolerance for the Mario Cuomo approach to abortion: that abortion is murder or is an act that should not be done, and yet it should be allowed by law.  But at least Planned Parenthood took a different approach in its response, but arguing (in a sense) that the fetus is not fully human.

UPDATE: Bernard Nathanson in his book addressed the issue of the fetus and whether it could feel pain.  See here.  See also here and here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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