Editor’s note. Dr. Bernard Nathanson passed away on Monday. I wrote about his enormous impact later that afternoon and again yesterday, reprinting an article that had run in National Right to Life News in 1984. I am following up today with an interview I conducted with Dr. Nathanson in June 1984 at NRLC’s national convention in St. Louis. It appeared in the June 21, 1984 issue of National Right to Life News. (A few extraneous sentences are excluded.)
Dr. Nathanson’s turnabout—from one of the founding strategist behind NARAL to a leading pro-life figure—is one of the most amazing stories you will ever read. Beyond that I reprint this interview for two reasons.
First, it helps those who have never seen his incredibly powerful “The Silent Scream” to understand why the short video had such a profound impact. Second, to underscore the importance of ultrasound in converting not only the man who at one time directed the largest abort ion facility in the world, but also many abortion-vulnerable women today.
NRL News: What is this film about and why did you feel the need to put it together?
BN: The film is about abortion. That sounds simple but it’s not. About a year ago, I began to mull over why we were not progressing more rapidly than we are on this issue. It took me six months before the problems crystallized. The problem was that no one had ever seen the abortion from the victim’s vantage point. …
We have discussed endlessly, ad infinitum the effects of abortion on women but we have never truly, viscerally discussed the effects on the baby. This videotape is for the first time, a permanent, objective record of what abortion does to the child. In order for the discussion to broaden and deepen, to be made more intelligible to everyone who wishes to discuss the issue, they must understand abortion from the victim’s vantage point.
News: The videotape is real-time ultrasound. What does that mean?
BN: Real time ultra-sound imaging …is a motion picture of what is going on the moment one is viewing the event. It is as though a motion picture camera was placed inside the uterus.
News: Describe the abortion if you would.
BN: It is a complete abortion of a ten week child. I chose an early abortion because I didn’t want proponents of abortion to say this was an “exceptional” case, one of the one hundred thousand later-term abortions, not one of the 1.4 million abortions [done earlier in the pregnancy]. This is one of those 1.4 million abortions.
As I told the audience at the convention, long before the instrument has touched the child, the child is aware that there has been an invasion of the sanctuary. When the suction tip hits the amniotic sac–the membrane surrounding the child (and there’s a lot of fluid between the sac and child)—the child jumps. Now as far as we know the amniotic sac has no nerve fibers, so clearly the child does not feel but senses that something aggressive is happening, and he jumps away. You can see this on the film; the moment the tip of the suction machine starts to move, the fetus knows it and starts to scuttle to the top of the uterus. You can see its mouth open in a silent scream.
From there on you can see all the agitation: you can see the heart speeding up, you can see the limbs moving faster, you can see the child turning more rapidly. Even the breathing, which is difficult to see on these films, even the breathing increases. So there is no question this child actually senses dangers.
News: To the general public what is the most compelling part of the film?
BN: It is all very arresting but especially several particulars. There is the view of the child during the first five minutes of the film. The child is at play, sucking his thumb, moving about, and so forth. From then on there is the stalking of the victim and the victim’s terror followed by the actual quartering, the dismemberment of the child before your eyes. You can see the spinal column slipping down the suction tube and the head is left with a piece of spine on it. And then you can see the abortionist searching for the head.
News: What was your personal reaction to this ghastly scene?
BN:I suppose I knew what to expect, after all I’ve done thousands of these. In my thinking about abortion when I changed my point of view I was doing a great deal of ultra-sound, but not of abortions. So I was prepared, but it still stunned me and nauseated me. But I was prepared to do what I had to do [film the abortion]. The abortionist was not. When he was actually doing the abortion and watching the screen, he said he felt nauseated. He turned away. He didn’t want to see the film again. He did at my urging when we edited the film to tell me exactly what was happening. The ultra-sound technician needed a tremendous amount of persuasion to come back and see the film to do the editing. I had to pay her the moon. But she was essential; she had to show me the subtleties on the ultra-sound.
News: I understand the abortionist quit the abortion facility?
BN: Yes. I talked to him this morning. He asked me how the film had gone, and I said fine. He said he never wanted to see that film again. He is an old friend of mine; I trained him as a resident. I had asked him since he was going to perform the abortion anyway, if I might please film it. He is a very decent person who is confused about abortion. He is less confused today.
News: What are your plans for this videotape? Will medical schools, other professors, and the media have the guts to use it?
BN:I think they’re going to have to. I don’t think they’ll be able to resist. I think they’ll have to see it. They’ll be the usual deriding, the usual derogatory remarks from NARAL and Planned Parenthood—“We already knew about it, so what!” I think the general public is uneasy with abortion but uneducated. They will take this film very seriously.