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He's the Force Behind 'The Silent Scream' Film : Doctor Who Performed Thousands of Abortions Narrates, Promotes Right-to-Life Sonogram Movie

August 08, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN and BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — He is 58, and if ever someone looked the part of a doctor, it is Bernard N. Nathanson.

Neither overly tall nor overly short, he is solidly built, with the slight softness that comes so often with late middle age.

Nathanson's hair is smoky gray; his thick glasses are so sensibly non-ornamental they seem almost to blend into his face. Deep creases line his forehead and frown lines cross his brow. The mouth is set, too, in firm furrows.

Nathanson reads Joyce, plays chess, jumps horses. He is seldom rattled, even when people call him a fanatic, a turncoat, an attention-seeker. Nathanson stays calm in all cases. So sure and steady is his voice that Nathanson probably would not cause panic if he cried "Fire!" in the proverbial crowded theater.

Here is a man who could diagnose cancer without inciting dread. Here is a man who could terminate pregnancies, 5,000 of them by his own count. Here is a man who was among the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League, a man who, as head of what he has called "the largest abortion clinic in the Western World," oversaw 60,000 abortions.

And here is a man who could flip-flop to become the leading medical spokesman of the right-to-life movement, a man who says now that abortion is murder, pure and simple. And "except in the most compelling circumstances," he said, "I'm opposed to killing, period."

It is Nathanson's emotionless voice that narrates "The Silent Scream," the 28-minute sonogram, which uses sound waves to produce a picture of the inside of the uterus, depiction of an abortion that many say galvanized the abortion debate to its present high-fever pitch.

Last month the Reagan Administration announced it would seek the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand. No one could welcome this move more than Nathanson.

"My name is Bernard N. Nathanson," he intones in his introduction to the millions of men, women and children who have seen "The Silent Scream" on television, in church and community meeting rooms and even in public schools. "I'm a physician, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist. And I think I've had a passing experience in matters of abortion."

Recalls Reagan Speech

"Back about January of last year," Nathanson recalled, President Reagan made a speech to the National Assn. of Religious Broadcasters suggesting that a fetus feels "long and agonizing pain" during an abortion.

The speech drew immediate exception from, among others, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which issued a policy statement challenging the President's viewpoint. Nathanson was among 26 college members who issued an immediate counterstatement supporting the President. Conflicting claims continued, Nathanson said, "until I mulled it over and thought there's only one way we can resolve this issue, and that's by photographing an abortion, beginning to end."

Soon Nathanson was talking to another physician about the possibility of filming an abortion. "I've helped a lot of younger doctors in my time in various ways," he said. One such physician was working in two abortion clinics, and Nathanson approached him about documenting the procedures.

Nathanson offered to supply the film technician and the ultrasound equipment. Nathanson said the abortion patients were told of the filming. Assured complete anonymity and unrecognizability, they signed consent forms, documents Nathanson later destroyed.

To the doctor, Nathanson said, "I don't expect you to do anything except your abortions." And, Nathanson added, "I don't know what we're going to see on this. Maybe we'll see nothing; maybe we'll see a lot."

What they saw, Nathanson and the other physicians who examined the film agreed, "looked pretty interesting. The baby looked like it was jumping away from the instrument, like it was thrashing around, and this is not the kind of activity we normally see."

By now a star speaker on the anti-abortion lecture circuit, Nathanson began "taking the films around to the various pro-life groups I was addressing." Even without the tapes, his schedule was full: "I was every weekend on the road, speaking on abortion." And the first time his sonogram abortion tapes were publicly shown, "in Schenectady, (N.Y.,) I believe," they were "an instant smash."

Word traveled fast. Nathanson was approached by California documentarian Donald S. Smith to use a portion of the abortion sonogram in Smith's latest film, "Conceived in Liberty." At first Nathanson hesitated. "I said, 'I don't know what I want to do with these videotapes, but I don't see why I should give them to you to put in your film.' " But Smith prevailed. "Conceived in Liberty" was shown at that year's National Right to Life convention in Kansas City, and so was Nathanson's sonogram.

"His film got a good reception," Nathanson said, "but my videotapes--you couldn't get enough people in the room. The walls were bulging."

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