Passing of the producer of “The Silent Scream” reminds us how powerfully this video altered the abortion debate

By Dave Andrusko

I did not know until today that Donald S. Smith has passed away on January 30 at age 94. His name will be familiar to only a small percentage of our readers but his impact as producer of “The Silent Scream” was immense.

Below I am reposting one of the dozens and dozens of stories we wrote about this 28 minute video which (and this is no exaggeration) stunned the nation in 1984. It personalized abortion in a way that never had been accomplished before by, in essence, explaining abortion from the terrified victim’s point of view.

Of all publications, the New York Times offered a fairly balanced obituary. “Mr. Smith was working in public relations and advertising when he began to turn his attention to the abortion issue,” wrote Neil Genzlinger. “He and Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who had once performed abortions but had become an abortion opponent, joined forces to make ‘The Silent Scream’ through American Portrait Films, a company Mr. Smith had formed.”

Genzlinger explained that “Mr. Smith’s promotional efforts included distributing videocassette copies of the movie to every member of Congress and every justice on the Supreme Court, as well as various state officials. The movie was widely criticized as exploitative and scientifically suspect by Planned Parenthood and other groups, but it became a pivotal weapon of the anti-abortion movement.”

Skeptical as was all the media elite, the Los Angeles Times nonetheless wrote in 1985, “the 28-minute film — translated into six languages and seen by millions on television news reports and religious shows and in private screenings before school and church groups — has intensified the longstanding fight over abortion and turned it into a high-tech propaganda war.”

Needless to say, we didn’t then and we don’t know see The Silent scream as “propaganda.” President Reagan, a big promoter of the film, called the film a “chilling documentation of the horror of abortion” at a rally three weeks before Smith screened the film at a February 1985 news conference in Washington’s Old Executive Office Building which is located next door to the White House.

According to the Times, Smith was making a film when he approached Dr. Nathanson to borrow some of the sonogram images Dr. Nathanson used in his talks. “The two men decided to make an entire film built around the sonogram imagery, with Dr. Nathanson the on-camera narrator.”

In an interview I conducted with him in June 1984, Dr. Nathanson told me the film was the first to present abortion “from the victim’s vantage point.”

What follows is an article that appeared in 1985 in National Right to Life News that I believe gives a flavor of what pro-and anti-life forces were thinking. It also illuminates how important NRLC was in helping The Silent Scream reach the widest possible audience.


NRLC Vigorously Promotes “The Silent Scream.”

Washington (Feb 25)—The Silent Scream “represents the most powerful breakthrough for the right to life movement since the election of President Ronald Reagan,” NRLC President John C. Willke said today. “This extraordinary documentary of the death of a 12-week preborn child is changing the very vocabulary of the abortion debate,” he said. “The National Right to Life Committee has been, and will continue to be, in the forefront of publicizing and distributing this compelling drama.”

Pro-abortionists obviously share Dr. Willke’s assessment. “There’s been a lot of discussion and gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair about how to deal with it,” according to Lisa Akchin, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. Even journalists are not immune from the film’s extraordinary impact.

For example, ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel calls the film “a distressing, in parts a very distressing video.” He has gone so far as to ask the question whether The Silent Scream “is one of those images which captures the public’s imagination [such as] the police dogs used by Bull Connor and his men in South?”

Produced by American Portrait Films in Anaheim, California, the controversial 28-minute motion picture is sending shock waves across the country. The core of this extraordinary film is an ultrasound, narrated by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, depicting the death throes of an unborn child as she desperately tries to evade the fatal probe of the abortionist’s suction curettage.

Pro-abortionists such as Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Woman (NOW), seems compelled to talk about the film on every possible occasion. Goldsmith spent over half of her time at a recent debate with Jerry Falwell at the National Press Club trying to discredit The Silent Scream.

“The pro-abortionists’ defensiveness is understandable,” Dr. Willke said. “For the first time in over a decade, they are unquestionably on the defensive, trying to justify the ghastly death of a tiny human brutally torn apart.”

Requests for copies of the film are coming into NRLC from as far away as Japan and Australia. Inquiries about “the abortion film” are pouring in from Latin America, Canada, England, and the Scandinavian countries.

NRLC has made the promotion of the Nathanson ultrasound one of its highest priorities. “Prior to our January 22 press conference, NRLC determined to explain to the media that The Silent Scream is the most newsworthy item in the abortion debate,” said NRLC Public Relations Director Dan Donehey. “We succeeded.”

NRLC arranged for Dr. Nathanson to come to Washington to present his film at the press conference. The media’s interest was immediate and clear. NRLC also made arrangements with the film’s producer, Donald Smith, to have broadcast-quality videotapes available for the major television networks, and that night, every network showed clips of The Silent Scream.

The media’s keen interest led to numerous television appearances by pro-life leaders along with a spate of newspaper stories in major papers around the country. Following the January 22 news conference, the NRLC public relations office distributed copies of The Silent Scream to more than 20 major broadcast media.

The interest has been so intense that NRLC has set up a corner of the office so that visiting press may have a quiet place to view this incredible film. The film has been shown almost continuously and newspaper and magazine articles about The Silent Scream appear nearly every day.

NRLC’s involvement stretches back to its 1984 convention in Kansas City where Nathanson introduced the ultrasound. An interview with Nathanson that appeared in the June 21 issues of NRL News has appeared in right to life publications all over the country.

“I can’t see how you could overestimate the importance of The Silent Scream,” Dr. Willke said. “We feel privileged to be able to contribute free copies to our fifty state affiliates.”

NRLC Educational Trust fund Director Richard Glasow told NRL News that the Trust Fund has already purchased over $53,000 worth of copies of the film. “We’ve placed orders with American Portrait Films for 140 copies of the movie and 100 copies of the video tape, for starters,” Glasow said. “Our goal is to make it possible for every interested pro-lifer in the country to see this film, and, more importantly, to work to get it shown on their local television stations.

Like an avalanche gaining momentum, the fascination with The Silent Scream builds and builds. The White House held a briefing and ceremony Feb. 12 in which a gold-plated 16 mm copy of the film was given to President Reagan. Producer Donald Smith also made available 550 copies to be distributed to every member of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court free of charge.

On Feb. 17 the Rev. Jerry Falwell aired the film during his weekly cable network television program and gave credit to WTBS owner Ted Turner for demonstrating “intestinal fortitude” in allowing the full 28-minute version to air unedited. Falwell has called on his massive nationwide audience to help him get copies of The Silent Scream into the hands of 50,000 pastors.

Meanwhile, media powerhouses such as the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report have carried stories on the Nathanson ultrasound. Thanks to the efforts of the NRLC public relations department, clips of The Silent Scream have recently appeared on all three major networks, the Cable News Network, and local stations around the country.

Mr. Smith passed away almost exactly eight years after Dr. Nathanson.

Rest in Peace.