The right-to-life movement has mastered a powerful new tool of persuasion: medical technology. A recently developed science called fetology has greatly enhanced knowledge of the human unborn, and harbors an implied challenge to the legal practice of abortion.
“Now for the first time, we have the technology to see the abortion from the victim’s vantage point,” says Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist and cofounder of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) who is now an antiabortion activist.
Fetology did not exist in 1973, the year the Roe v. Wade decision was made. At that time, says Nathanson, the belief “that the fetus was a human being with unique personal qualities” could be only an “article of faith.”
Medical science has changed that. Studies of the prenatal immune system discredited the proabortion claim that, until birth, the fetus exists merely as an extention of the mother’s body. Researchers now know that the fetus must excrete precise hormone mixes through the placenta to protect itself from the hostile immune system of the mother. Without these protective secretions the uterus would reject the fetus as a foreign substance.
Further, new technologies such as ultrasound imaging and electronic fetal heart monitoring have given physicians a bird’s eye view of the earliest stages of fetal development. By correlating the echoes of high-frequency sound waves, it Is now possible to view on an office television monitor an image, or a sonogram, of an unborn child still in the womb.
Using microcomputer and transducer technology, monograms enable physicians to track the fetal heartbeat from as early as five weeks into pregnancy. With other techniques doctors may monitor the unborn s brainwaves after only six weeks. Well before 12 weeks, “the fetus,” asserts Nathanson, “is a fully formed, absolutely identifiable human person … indistinguishable from any of us … in form or substance.”
While ultrasound imaging has allowed parents to observe the marvels of life within the sanctuary of the womb. Nathanson and an organization called American Portrait Films have used it in a controversial abortion documentary called “The Silent Scream” to expose a grisly reality of clinical abortion: The aborted child experiences pain.
Nathanson’s film reaches its climax as he narrates a stop-action sonogram depicting an actual first-trimester abortion. The fetus is first observed resting serenely within the amniotic fluid. After the introduction of the abortionist’s suction tip, the fetus rears, wildly in an attempt to escape the invading instrument. The child’s heart rate rises from 140 beats per minute to 210.
“There is no question,” intones Nathanson in the film, “this child senses aggression.” Nathanson then freezes the stop-action image, revealing the child’s tiny mouth opened wide in what Nathanson’s calls “the silent scream.”
Modern neurology confirms that the fetus can experience pain, not just reflex. Reflexive reactions, such as the involuntary and painless knee jerk produced by a tap of a physician’s mallet, electronically stimulate only the spinal column. More complex “aversive,” or pain, responses require stimulating a tiny brain sensor called the thalmus. Neurologists can now detect thalmus and central nervous system functions between the 8th and 13th weeks of gestation. The coordinated motor responses manifested by the baby in Nathanson’s sonogram clearly indicate aversive, not reflexive, response to the abortion procedure.
While advancing methods of monitoring fetal brain waves may soon allow a more quantitative verification of pain, currently available knowledge certainly shatters the popular conception of abortion as a humane and an antiseptic practice. The most common of first-term abortion, suction, systematically dismembers the child’s body. The head, referred to euphemistically by the abortionist as “number one,” must be crushed with forceps before it can squeeze through the suction tube.
Nathanson, who formerly directed what was at the time the largest abortion clinic in the Western world, has challenged proabortion groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood to give material exposing the true nature of the abortion procedure to women considering abortion. Many feminists have objected. However, to the suggestion that women use such material at a time “when they feel most vulnerable.”
Yet one doubts that an increasingly wary public will continue to support a woman’s right to choose, even while the prochoice movement would deny her the right to know. Our increased knowledge of fetal life provided by fetology may explain, at least in part, the increased public opposition to abortion reported recently in Gallup polls.
The facts available through fetology have forced the hand of the proabortion camp. A Dallas columnist belittles “The Silent Scream” as “rehashed propaganda,” showing only that the fetus dies. “We’ve known that all along,” she added. Yet the life of the fetus–as a separate human being–is precisely what the prochoice movement has never wanted to concede. As one prochoice advocate told Nathanson on a recent edition of NBC’s “Hour Magazine,” “You have your idea of when life begins, and we have ours.”
Such subjective reveries reveal a movement motivated not by the intricacies of individual moral calculations, but instead by the demands of personal convenience. Those who have heard the silent scream may no longer justify convenience with ignorance.