WASHINGTON — The White House provided the stage Tuesday for an anti-abortion group to announce that it is giving every member of Congress and each Supreme Court justice a videotape of "The Silent Scream," a controversial documentary that uses ultrasound images to show a 12-week-old fetus being aborted.
Faith Ryan Whittlesey, an assistant to President Reagan, introduced the makers of the film at a special screening and called it "a powerful testament for the pro-life position." She predicted that the film, sponsored by a group called Crusade for Life, would "alter forever the terms of the debate on the abortion issue."
The 30-minute film, converted to tape for the lawmakers and jurists, has been widely acclaimed among abortion foes. It was screened for reporters and anti-abortion activists in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.
'Horror of Abortion'
Three weeks ago, at a Washington rally protesting the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion, Reagan called the film a "chilling documentation of the horror of abortion" and suggested that every member of Congress see it.
Produced by American Portrait Films of Anaheim, Calif., the film could prove significant in the abortion debate because of its startling images of a fetus recoiling from abortion instruments and the skillful, low-key presentation by its narrator, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, former director of the nation's largest abortion clinic.
Pro-choice groups, concerned that the film could boost attempts to overturn the Supreme Court decision, are moving aggressively to attack it. Hours before the screening, Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women, denounced the film as "fraudulent, emotionally exploitative and overpraised" during a debate at the National Press Club with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.
The film, which purports to show a fetus uttering a "silent scream" as it is touched by a suction device, "is not something for pro-choice activists to fear," Goldsmith said. "The National Organization for Women is, in fact, urging its members to see the film, to demystify it, to refute the misrepresentations with realities and, above all, to put women back into the picture."
Goldsmith charged that the narrator's description of a "child being torn apart by the unfeeling instruments of abortion" is "emotional manipulation at its most cynical, designed to exploit a cultural concern for children--real, living, born children--and transfer it to a 12-week-old, 2-inch-long fetus."
She also asserted that the turbulently active fetus depicted on a sonogram in the film could not have been feeling pain because "embryologists say that neural pathways are not developed until the 24th week."
Neural pathways--that is, nerves--carry the effects of external impulses to the brain, which converts them to pain or pleasure.
Falwell, declaring that the film "is not a fraud," said: "I cannot believe that any human being can sit through it without having some deep, deep, deep remorse for the unborn."
He sought to strike a conciliatory note in the debate, saying that many anti-abortion leaders are "pragmatists" who would not demand a total ban on abortions. He said they are willing to "accept exceptions" in cases involving a mother's life being threatened, rape or incest.
Goldsmith retorted that Falwell "may think he is going to win," but "he is wrong because too many of us remember that women's screams were not silent" when they underwent illegal abortions "in back alleys or on kitchen tables."
Nathanson and Donald Smith, producer of "The Silent Scream," spoke at the special screening.
Nathanson, who presided over 60,000 abortions as head of a New York City clinic--and was a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League--said he switched sides after improvements in technology gave him a better picture of fetal development.
To critics who contend that the film's somewhat fuzzy image of the fetus does not prove it is experiencing pain, Nathanson said: "The actions of that child are exquisitely appropriate to a human being in pain."
Smith gave Reagan a "commemorative edition" of the film, wound on a gold-plated reel that was mounted in a polished wooden case.