Beyond the Legal Right; Why Liberals and Feminists Don't like to Talk about the Morality of Abortion

By DeParle, Jason | The Washington Monthly, April 1989 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Legal Right; Why Liberals and Feminists Don't like to Talk about the Morality of Abortion


DeParle, Jason, The Washington Monthly


Why liberals and feminists don't like to talk about the morality of abortion

We going to watch a child being torn apart. . ." promises Dr. Bernard son, "by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist." But the promise isn't really kept. What we see in The Silent Scream, Nathanson's famous anti-abortion film, isn't red dismemberment but flickering gray chaos. I stopped the video tape three times to examine the fuzzy image that Nathanson calls a child's mouth emitting its silent scream. But what I saw looked more like a satellite photo of a Manitoba blizzard, an undifferentiated swirl.

Several years ago as the film's influence spread-Ronald Reagan showed it at the White House-Planned Parenthood released a handsome brochure of rebuttal, entitled "The Facts Speak Louder." Whereas The Silent Scream claimed the fetal head was too big for a suction tube and had to be crushed first with forceps, the brochure said the doctor could have used a larger tube. Whereas The Silent Scream said the invasion of the uterus raised the fetal heart throb from 140 beats per minute to 200, the brochure said a rate of 200 is normal. The lines of inquiry remained the same on the "CBS Morning News," where dueling experts speculated on whether a 12-week-old fetus possesses enough cortex to feel pain, and what, in fact, we mean by painsomething understood or merely reflexive? "We know that the fews spends lots of time with its mouth open," said one Yale physician, so what looked like a scream might have been "a chance random finding'"

While these facts may, as Planned Parenthood says, speak loudly, it's unlikely that they say what the prochoice groups hope, since they put the fetus, even a televised facsimile, on center stage, precisely where prochoice groups don't want it. Assume the film is wrong and the Planned Parenthood brochure is right. Assume that was a fetal yawn and not a scream. None of the experts contested that it was a fetal mouth, and that it was pan of a fetal head, attached to a fetal spine, and that it had arms andlegs, fingers and eyes. Nathanson was certainly wrong to suggest that the 12-week-old fews was "indistinguishable in every way from any of us"; a rather important difference, one would think, is that the rest of us aren't enveloped in the living flesh of another human being with needs and rights of her own. But if the film's scientific and rhetorical claims are extravagant, it nonetheless succeeded in directing all eyes toward-take your pick-the "fetus" or "unborn child."

Writing in Ms. magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the film's failure to mention the woman having the abortion, "not even as a sinner or a murderer," was the "eeriest thing" about it. 'Abortions, after all, have to take place somewhere," she wrote, "i.e., in the uterus of an actual human being." Ehrenreich's point is well-taken: much of the right-to-life movement does act as if abortions took place in an abstract neutral setting, rather than within a woman whose life may begin to unravel with an unwanted pregnancy. But I don't think I'd call that the "eeriest thing" about The Silent Scream; as eeriness goes, the image, clear in mind if fuzzy on screen, of tiny bits of head, shoulders, ribs, and thighs being fed to a suction tube is formidable.

It's hard to hold these two images-the dismembered body of the fetus and the enveloping body of the mother, each begging the allegiance of our conscience-in mind at the same time. One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is how rarely we do it, at least in public discourse. While contentious issues naturally produce onedimensional positions, the remarkable thing about abortion is that many otherwise sensitive, nuanced thinkers hold them. To one side, visions only of women in crisis, terrified and imperilled by an invasive growth; to the other, only legions of innocent children, chased by the steely needle.

The inhumanity that issues from baronies within the right-to-life movement is well known: the craziness of a crusade against birth control; the view of women as second-class citizens; even the descent into bomb-throwing madness. …

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