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A Refutation Of 'Silent Scream'

August 17, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Like millions of other Americans who watched the Jan. 22 edition of "Nightline," Patricia Jaworski was mesmerized when she saw the first segments of the now-famous anti-abortion film "The Silent Scream" to air on national television.

Jaworski leans forward in her chair and thumps her chest in amazement as she recalls how stunned she was to watch that sonogram depiction of an actual abortion.

"It gets you on this real gut level," she said. But "at the same time," she added, "I knew it was wrong, because I had the data."

For more than a year, independent producer Jaworski had been working on the research for a documentary of her own, examining the intricacies of fetal brain development. The producer of nine earlier radio documentaries, each dealing with some aspect of the brain, Jaworski had intended this latest project to focus somehow on 'the development of the brain with the respect to the abortion issue." Now, suddenly, she had a clearcut target.

"Thinking About 'The Silent Scream'," Jaworski's half-hour documentary, will be heard for the first time in the New York area Sunday, and three other major New York radio stations have scheduled it later in the month. Because several of her earlier productions have been heard nationally; in Los Angeles they have been carried by, among others, Pacifica Radio and National Public Radio. Jaworski hopes this latest effort will also earn a national audience.

Presented in a straightforward, non-emotional fashion, the show centers on interviews with four leading brain researchers from around the country, as well as with scientist/science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. One of the show's primary goals is to refute the suggestion made in "The Silent Scream" that a 12-week-old fetus "feels pain."

"Does the brain even exist at conception?" narrator Jaworski asks early in the broadcast.

"No!!!" shoots back Dr. Michael Bennett, chairman of the neuroscience department at New York's Albert Einstein School of Medicine.

"Can there be a person without a brain?" Jaworski inquires.

"No, no way," replies Bennett. "You can't be a person without a brain, you can't be a dog without a brain, you can't be a cat without a brain or a chicken without a brain."

Says Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic, professor of neuroscience at the Yale University School of Medicine: "The premise of modern neurobiology is that the brain is the organ of consciousness. The brain is the organ of sensation, perception, conscious experience."

What about thought, Jaworski wonders.

"Including thought," Goldman-Rakic says firmly. "There is no thought without the brain."

Though her documentary did turn out to be a rebuttal to "The Silent Scream," Jaworski admits she was uncertain which way her research would lead her when she began the project.

"I was faced with doing a story without knowing where the evidence would end up," she said. "For all I knew it could have ended up that the brain was fully developed at two months, and I had to face that."

But to a person, Jaworski's "impeccably credentialed, leading edge" scientists concurred that "there are no brain neurons prior to four weeks' of fetal development. They contend that the cerebral cortex, the portion of the brain needed for thought, feelings and conscious awareness, is the last part of the brain to fully develop."

In fact, asserts neurologist and neuroscientist Dr. Dominick Purpura, former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and current dean at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, before the 28th week of development the cortex lacks sufficient axons, dendrites and synapses to sustain the processes of thought, feeling and awareness the documentary deems necessary for "personhood."

"We're putting the boundary condition, a limit, the minimal time for personhood to begin," Purpura says. "It's not three months, it's not two months, it's seven months."

While clearly controversial, Jaworski's documentary is important, WCBS-radio public affairs director Ellen Miller said, because "it's a scientific piece. It's not done emotionally." Her station will "invite pro-life people, we're not sure when," to present their side of the issue sometime after "Thinking About 'The Silent Scream' " airs later this month.

"This is an issue of concern to the public," Miller said, "and radio has an obligation to present issues of public interest."

Dave Metzger, public affairs director of New York radio station WBAI, pointed out: "Unfortunately, this is an issue that doesn't make anybody happy."

Certainly the subject evokes strong reactions. But Jaworski insists that "no one who has heard" her documentary has refused to air it.

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