One day last week I went over to the White House to see a movie. That's not something I regularly do -- or indeed had ever done. But I'd never seen the movie before, either, and I was curious. The film was "The Silent Scream," which shows by means of ultrasound the aborting of a 12-week fetus. Presidential assistant Faith Ryan Whittlesey described the 28- minute film as "a powerful testament for the pro-life position," and indeed it is, though perhaps not so utterly compelling as its most fervent advocates would like to believe. A special commemorative edition of the film was given to the president, who had already seen it, and videotapes were delivered later that day to every member of Congress and to the justices of the Supreme Court. It is the president's hope, as he said lat month, "that if every member of Congress could see this film . . . , that Congress would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion."

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the president, any person of normal sensibilities would have to find the film disturbing -- rather the way the television footage of children starving in Ethiopia was disturbing when we first saw it last year. We do not want to hear about fetuses being "torn apart, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed," in the words -- all the more shocking for their cool delivery -- of Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League who changed his mind and joined the other side. (He narrates the film and was at the White House to introduce it to a hundred or more of the faithful, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, as well as some members of the president's staff and a few journalists.) We do not want to see the gruesome shots of fetuses in trash cans. We do not want to see Ethiopian children starving, either. We want, as they say, everything to be nice, and every child wanted and every family happy, and wars and pestilence and famine to cease.

But life is not a fairy tale, and not everything that happens is nice. The famine in sub-Sahara Africa is not nice. The extreme poverty in which much of the world lives is not nice. Wars which continue to sweep one corner of the planet or another are not nice. Pestilence and death are not nice, nor is terror. As it turns out, life is not a television comedy either, and all these things we might prefer not to see do in fact exist out there and now even assault us from our television screens. The visual image has indeed brought the horror home. If it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of the pain of abortion, as the people behind "The Silent Scream" would claim, it is even less possible to claim ignorance of the terrible cost to human dignity -- and in human life -- of overpopulation and its attendant misery and suffering.

And yet people try all the time. Many of those most opposed to abortion, for instance, are also most opposed to any other civilized method of population control (except, it sometimes seems, capital punishment). Even the White House has temporarily (perhaps permanently) frozen $46 million intended for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. It has also cut off $17 million for the International Planned Parenthood Federation because a very small proportion of its funds helps support abortion clinics in countries where they are legal. And the Agency for International Development's Family Assistance Planning funds have been reduced by $40 million in the new fiscal year.

It is incredible to me that an administration so sensitive to life in utero, and so touched by the sad individual case, can be so seemingly unaware of the horrible checks that the world will impose willy-nilly on unlimited life outside the womb. Surely no one can "like" abortion; but just as surely no one can really like those traditional and exceedingly harsh but effective methods of keeping the world's population within manageable limits: the "natural" scourges of famine, pestilence and war. The screams of those victims are not silent. And if the population of the world soars from its present 5 billion to a projected 12 billion in the next century, no one can reasonably expect those terrible afflictions of humankind to remain at a decent distance from these happy shores. The time for emergency aid is now. The real emergency aid is the aid we are withholding.