Considering the volatility of the public debate on abortion, and the controversy in some markets over whether to air "The Abortion Battle" at all, the three-hour PBS special on abortion (8 to 11 tonight on Channels 26 and 32 and Maryland Public TV stations) is curiously devoid of passion.
The first hour consists largely of predictable people saying predictable things -- for example, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Guess which side each is on? It also includes a deadly dull prochoice film narrated by Ed Asner and Tammy Grimes, and a stomach-churning antiabortion segment on the discovery of a storage container filled with aborted fetuses.
The third hour is a rerun of the PBS film "Abortion Clinic," which ran first as a "Frontline" segment last year.
Whatever impact there is in the broadcast comes during the second hour, which incorporates the slick and controversial right-to-life film "The Silent Scream," followed by a less slick prepared response to it from a representative of Planned Parenthood in Seattle and a group of obstetricians and gynecologists from the University of Washington.
"The Silent Scream," edited for the PBS broadcast, purports to show a live ultrasound depiction of a 12-week fetus writhing in agony and screaming as an abortion is being performed.
The film is narrated by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, cofounder of the National Abortion Rights Action League turned passionate antiabortionist. It is regarded by the Right to Life movement, we are told, as its most persuasive weapon in the battle to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
But a group of physicians from the University of Washington Medical School designated five major inaccuracies or misleading technical effects.
One physician, Dr. Michael Rothenberg, charged that the film was "full of inaccuracies, half-truths, and . . . just plain lies." Among other things, said Rothenberg, "Every time Dr. Nathanson refers to the physician, the physician is called an abortionist. When he talks about the fetus, he calls it a child. Halfway through the film he stops calling the uterus a uterus and calls it a sanctuary . . ."
President Reagan, who saw the entire "Silent Scream" film at the White House, said at the time that it provided "chilling documentation of the horror of abortion."
On the whole, the PBS program rehashes the arguments between the two most extreme segments in the abortion controversy, both of which represent distinct minorities of the population. According to one poll cited on the program, fewer than 20 percent would ban absolutely all abortions. A similar small percentage favors abortion on demand. The vast majority polled -- about 62 percent -- indicated they believed abortions should be available under certain circumstances.
There is only passing reference to what many believe to be the most critical aspect of the problem as well as its potential solution -- a Planned Parenthood suggestion that better sex education would help reduce the demand for abortion.
There is very little new light shed on this divisive issue by these very long three hours, and not even very much new rhetoric.