NECAC Forum, Dartmouth College, January 22, 1986: “Silent Scream” and Planned Parenthood

John C. Rankin

In the fall of 1985, the Dartmouth Area Christian Fellowship (DACF), founded by alumni/ae of the college, had me speak. They then followed through with plans to host a debate on campus through their campus group and a co-sponsor, set for January 22, 1986, the thirteenth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. They made inquiries to find an interlocutor for me, beginning with the local chapter of Planned Parenthood and professors on campus, but could find no willing party.

So we decided instead to hold a forum at the Collis Center, the social center of the school. And we planned to show the current and controversial film by former abortionist, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, The Silent Scream. It was the first video produced for public purpose that showed an ultrasound of an unborn human being undergoing an abortion, and as crude as the ultrasound technology was at the time, the child discernible silent scream on his or her mouth, as the womb was invaded, was uniquely compelling in its horror. To make understatement: No unborn child has ever cooperated with the act of being aborted.

Elsewhere I report on the forum, and especially the dynamics of addressing the question of a woman anxious to be heard (click here). Here, let me review the evening at large. The advertising poster said the following (on a dot matrix printer with red and black ink on a white background):

ABORTION

A COLLISION OF TWO WORLD VIEWS

Presenting the Film The Silent Scream & Planned Parenthood’s Response Via VCR

Followed by an Open Forum where John C. Rankin M.Div. will present “An Unimpeachable Thesis Opposing Abortion”

Any and All Advocates of Legalized Abortion Are Invited to be Present and Challenge this Thesis

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 22, 1986

COLLIS COMMON GROUND

DARTMOUTH COLLEGE

9:15 P.M.

Sponsored by the New Testament Fellowship & Campus Crusade for Christ

Let us first quote the article that appeared in The Dartmouth on Friday, January 24, written by Petra Schaefer:

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Abortion discussion follows showing of controversial film

More than one hundred people attended a presentation on abortion entitled ‘A Collision of Two World Views’, at Collis Common Ground on Wednesday night.

The forum, sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ and the New Testament Fellowship, marked the 13th anniversary of the Roe vs Wade decision, the Supreme Court case which legalized abortion in this country.

The program was scheduled to include both the movie “The Silent Scream” and a taped response by Planned  to the film. However, it was announced that the response would probably not be shown, and the audience reacted by booing.

“The Silent Scream,” which has been endorsed by President Reagan, includes an ultrasound account of an abortion inside the mother’s womb. Throughout the movie, narrator Dr. Bernard Nathanson speaks against abortion.

Halfway through the showing of the film, permission was secured from the producers of the tape to show the response. The Planned Parenthood tape is a critique of the inaccuracies in “The Silent Scream,” including the use of a twelve-inch fetus to represent the two-inch fetus in the ultrasound pictures, the deliberate change of speed of the ultrasound pictures to indicate movement of the fetus, and claims of the fetus feeling pain.

After both films, John Rankin of the New England Christian Action Council in Gloucester, Massachusetts presented his “Unimpeachable Thesis Opposing Abortion.”

Rankin, who holds a Masters of Divinity, said he bases his argument on “self evaluation of the scriptures” and handed out a set of definitions based on that study. Included were definitions of conception, abortion, abortion as the ultimate male chauvinism, and Christian ethics in a pluralistic society.

Rankin insists “there is no pro-choice based on the Scripture. The formulation of the pro-life ethic is what the scriptures teach.” He added that, “abortion is the cutting down of life and if oyu cut it down, how can you build up?”

Rankin commented, “I can speak for 99 percent plus of the Evangelical Christian community, I reach the same conclusions as many of the Fundamentalists, and a majority of the Catholics agree with me.”

Rankin noted that there were fewer cases today in which a woman would die in childbirth, but in such a situation he admitted, “I don’t know who you would choose.” Rankin defined human life “by essence, not achievement.”

Rankin said, “I’m arguing that it’s not in the best interest to abort a child, even in the case of rape and incest,” said Rankin. “Rape is such a trauma, but so is abortion. There is no pit so deep that God’s love isn’t deeper.”

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It is so instructive to review my presentation, and its perceptions through the eyes of a college reporter, nearly three decades after the fact.

The Planned Parenthood videotape response — which I still have along with the videotape of The Silent Scream — was produced by the King County chapter (Seattle, WA), and it had a copyright warning on it against unauthorized use except for private purposes. Not knowing how to interpret that, and not reading the warning until just before the forum, I spoke with the sponsors on how to proceed. Would we run the risk of a lawsuit? So the spokesman for the New Testament Fellowship announced this explicit concern to the audience at the outset. We did not want to risk a lawsuit, but we deeply wanted both sides to be heard. This reality was not captured up front by the reporter. And as we hesitated on showing it, the boos came as everyone wanted to see it, as had been advertised.

I was willing to risk such a possible lawsuit, but the sponsors were more circumspect, and we prayed about it. So we showed The Silent Scream, with the audience knowing our intentions and concerns. As it was showing, a young woman student approached the New Testament Fellowship sponsor, and said that her mother was on the board of Planned Parenthood of King County. She called her mother, received permission to show the video, and thus we did. When this announcement was made after The Silent Scream was completed, the audience erupted in cheers.

Thus, this unplanned drama increased the energy and interest of all presented, and is one of those portrait of moments that always stick in my mind.

Now, as to the perceptions of the reporter, one note is that she quoted me speaking of the “self evaluation of the scriptures.” Unfortunately, the use of “self” can seem that is it my “self” doing the interpretation. Rather, what I said (in a clause I used and still use often) is the need to “interpret the Bible on its own terms,” which requires a grasp of the history of biblical exegesis within the historical witness of exegetes.

This introduces the concept of “the metaethics of language,” a term I was introduced to later that year in my first class at Harvard. It address the concern that we want to be sure that others understand what we mean by what we say, and that our language does not allow it to be misconstrued. It is an art and ethic that is always a learning curve.

I think too that the reporter put my words into her own prism when she quoted me saying “there is no pro-choice based on scripture.” I only addressed the question of choice in the context of informed choice in service to human life, and never put down the term of “choice” per se. Her quote took the political term “pro-choice” and put it into my mouth is a way not used by me, a classic example of my shortcoming in the metaethics of language at the moment that she could make such a misconstrual.

And this is true of other quotes of hers, and of so many of other reporters, where they are writing notes as I speak, and the language transfer can be fuzzy and/or important nuances missed. Nonetheless, she did have the Unimpeachable Thesis Opposing Abortion in hand, and relayed the content of the lead sentences of four of the six points (click here). And too, her concluding quote from me summed up the reality well, as I was quoting the end of Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, regarding her seeing God’s power to forgive Nazis who killed her sister in the concentration camp, as she and her were arrested for hiding Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

Unfortunately, the reporter did not report on the question and answer period, where the interaction was dynamic and had to be ended when the scheduled conclusion time came. In the link noted above, I gave profile of one such interaction. Over these several decades of ministry, I remain in contact with so many people who attended various debates, forums, seminars, sermons and other personal or group meetings. Such a joy to work with fellow believers in seeking to bring freedom, justice and mercy into a broken world in the name of Jesus.

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