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Philosophy Research Archives

Volume 11, 1985

Joan C. Callahan
Pages 181-195

The Silent Scream
A New, Conclusive Case Against Abortion?

The Silent Scream, a videotape which includes footage of a real time sonogram of an abortion in progress, has been receiving considerable attention in America as the anti-abortion movement’s latest argument. The tape has been enthusiastically endorsed by President Reagan and has been distributed to every member of Congress and to each of the Supreme Court justices. It is produced and narrated by Bernard N. Nathanson, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist, and it includes a number of implicit and explicit claims which are highly controversial. Chief among these are: (1) the claim that since we can draw no morally significant line during the stages of fetal development, the fetus must be recognized as a person from conception onward, (2) the claim that the film is a high tech, state of the art proof that abortion is the brutal murder of an innocent human being, (3) the claim that in abortion the fetus experiences terror and pain, and (4) the claim that as long as abortion is legal, showing this film (or one relevantly similar) must be made part of the informed consent procedure for abortion. My purpose in this paper is to examine these claims to see if The Silent Scream adds anything to the moral case for making abortion illegal. I give particular attention to two claims which are seldom addressed in the abortion debate, viz., that the fetus experiences terror and pain during an abortion, and that women have not had the information they need (but which this film provides) to give an adequately informed consent to abortion. Since there is so much confusion in the abortion debate, and since this film trades on that confusion, my broader purpose is to add some clarification to the public discussion of this issue, which is daily becoming a more divisive issue of public policy.

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