Can ‘Unplanned’ Recapture That ‘Silent Scream’ Moment?

To hear supporters talk about it, “Unplanned” was the surprise splash hit of April. The movie easily earned back its $6 million production budget on opening weekend alone, and three weeks in it’s already more than doubled that revenue.

Much of the film’s success comes from a campaign of religious groups purchasing full theater showings or buying out screenings as give-aways and fundraisers. Despite what the right has called a “silencing campaign” — the movie’s Twitter account was accidentally locked for an hour, and the film was given an R rating for graphic depictions of abortions — “Unplanned” is clearly a success.

But will it give the anti-abortion movement what it truly seeks? Because what anti-choicers really desire isn’t profit or awards, but a shift in the public perception of abortion — and that may be much harder to obtain.

Using film to move the needle on the public perception of abortion is a time-honored tradition for the right. The most well-known, well-traveled anti-abortion video is, of course, Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s “The Silent Scream,” which was produced in 1984.

In the short video, Nathanson — a former leader of NARAL Pro-Choice America who converted to anti-abortion activism — narrates a grainy ultrasound camera image of a fetus in utero, claiming that the image is “screaming” in pain as it is aborted during a termination.

The visuals are murky, and audio is dubbed in to depict the sounds of bones crunching, as well as other special effects to bolster Nathanson’s claims. The doctor also uses fetal models of more advanced pregnancies to provide the detail and more mature looking features that lack in the ultrasound itself.

After a 1985 school viewing of the film, a Harvard Crimson reporter wrote:

The centerpiece of “The Silent Scream” is an ultrasound film of an abortion, which is purported to depict the fetus opening its mouth “in a silent scream” of pain and fear, proving that the fetus is “just another person, like you and me.”

In a panel discussion at the University of Washington School of Medicine, obstetricians with extensive experience in ultrasound reported that they could not make out the fetal features and gestures–including the “silent scream” which the narrator described. The type of camera, doctors and technicians agreed, is switched during the procedure to one that provides less resolution, so that here would be greater latitude for the narrator’s description of a “life and death struggle.”

The film may have lacked scientific backing, but as a propaganda tool it was a historic success. In 1985 the film was copied and distributed to every member of Congress and Supreme Court justice. It even received a screening at the White House itself, although then-President Ronald Reagan chose not to attend.

“Silent Scream” may have been the first anti-abortion film to jump into the mainstream in an attempt to humanize the developing fetus and demonize the abortion procedure, but it definitely wasn’t the first to mobilize the right.

In the late 1970s, theologian Francis Schaeffer and Dr. C. Everett Koop collaborated on “What Ever Happened to the Human Race?” a book and film series many claim to be responsible for mobilizing evangelicals into politics and launching what would eventually become the block known as the religious right. Like “Unplanned,” much of the audience was drawn from church groups organizing viewings and filling up theater seats as a means of politicizing their memberships and drawing them into the abortion battle.

In many ways, “Unplanned” serves as the perfect heir to this franchise — a fact filmmakers seem to recognize in their very clear homage to “Silent Scream” during the controversial abortion clinic scene that opens the movie. It’s a film that provides a highly religious audience exactly what it wants: a series of graphic abortion images that are at best extreme exaggerations of real life procedures, if not complete and utter fiction.

And that makes it the next obvious successor for taking over the Silent Scream legacy. Especially since it bears about as much resemblance to what really happens in an abortion clinic as Nathanson’s original film.

Photo credit: Robin Marty


Lara A
Lara A2 days ago


Jan S
Jan S4 days ago

thanks for posting

Alice L
Past Member 14 days ago

thank you

Peter B
Peter B15 days ago


Janis K
Janis K24 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld26 days ago

Pam W.,

How does this take compare to your experiences?

Leo C
Leo C27 days ago

thank you for sharing!

pam w
pam wabout a month ago

Martin Hill...I actually work at Planned Parenthood and know a bit more about contraceptive failure than you do! The only 100% foolproof contraceptive is total abstinence...not a likely method for loving relationships, is it? It's deceptive to claim abortions happen because women are irresponsible...and yet, MEN often do just that. Meanwhile, we have middle-school students traumatized by rape, finding relief with us, because nobody wants to punish them for their ''sins.''

Karen H
Karen Habout a month ago

Martin Hill, today's contraception is just as imperfect as it was 60 years ago. Women's health doesn't seem to matter to the males who make and market the contraceptives. Of course, men don't want to use contraception, so it's always up to the woman. As for "babies now being born will be allowed to die", I encourage you to take a few minute to watch this video to get the truth:

Leo C
Leo Cabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!