The always emotional legislative debate over public funding of abortions intensified today as advocates on both sides of the issue sought to use a graphic antiabortion film to win converts among Maryland legislators.
The lawmakers will vote next month on a proposal to give poor women greater access to the procedure.
Shown simultaneously in separate offices one floor apart in the House of Delegates building by abortion supporters and opponents, "The Silent Scream" was viewed by dozens of legislators, many of whom said they doubted the controversial film would alter the outcome on an issue that is usually decided by only a handful of votes.
But the dual screenings did serve to get the annual abortion debate off to an unusually early start, as a panel of doctors brought in by abortion rights activists sought to counter what they maintained are numerous inaccuracies in the film.
"The Silent Scream," a 28-minute film being distributed nationally by abortion opponents, shows, by means of a sonogram, a suction abortion of a 12-week-old fetus.
Abortion rights activists in Maryland who are supporting an effort by Gov. Harry Hughes to liberalize the state's rules on public funding of abortions for poor women, decided several weeks ago that the best way to counter the film's emotional message would be to air it themselves while providing a panel of doctors to rebut the film's contention that a 12-week-old fetus can feel pain during the procedure.
"There's been a lot of discussion and gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair about how deal with it," said Lisa Akchin, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "We knew that it was going to be used by the antichoice people to have an effect on the legislative process and we didn't want our efforts to be derailed by this piece of propaganda."
The doctors brought in to answer legislators' questions about the film, including specialists from Baltimore and Washington area hospitals, argued that the film inaccurately portrayed the fetus as experiencing pain and vainly trying to escape from the suction tube during the abortion.
"Those are reflex activities in a 12-week fetus," said Dr. Lindsay Alger, a University of Maryland Hospital perinatalogist. "If you poke an earthworm it wriggles. A fetus can't scream; the lungs aren't developed."
Legislators on both sides of the issue listened politely to the doctors' commentary on the film today, although the panel was occasionally heckled by antiabortion activists who also attended.
After the screenings, both proponents and opponents of liberalized abortion rules agreed that the film was powerful, but unlikely to change any votes.
"The film and the publicity it is getting will tend to help the prolife side, but not to the extent they would like," said Del. Wade Kach (R-Baltimore County), who switched sides and became an abortion opponent three years ago.
"It's a very subtle piece of propaganda," said Del. John Astle (D-Anne Arundel), the lone member of his county's House delegation who favors more liberal abortion funding. "But we each will have to make our decisions on our own."