Ted Turner Has His Say With ‘Abortion: For Survival’

Is it really true that abortion opponents dislike children and sex?

More about that shortly. Suffice to say that “Abortion: For Survival"--the video in which those unrebutted charges are made--is excellent propaganda, a powerful, sobering information statement that is also 30 minutes of shrewd, artful manipulation.

It’s been sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, members of Congress, state legislators, college campuses, women’s health clinics and nursing and medical schools.

And now, because of Ted Turner--an outspoken pro-choice advocate who recently called anti-abortion activists “bozos"--it’s being beamed to 49.5 million television households. That’s the number of subscribers listed by Turner’s cable superstation TBS, where the relentlessly one-sided “Abortion: For Survival” airs at 5:05 p.m. today (with reruns at 1:05 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday), followed by the inevitable panel discussion. Both the program and follow-up are unsponsored.


“Abortion: For Survival” is the pro-choice Fund for the Feminist Majority’s reply to the anti-abortion movement’s outrageously slanted propaganda film of 1985, “The Silent Scream.” The pro-choice video is appearing on TBS under the auspices of the Turner-founded Better World Society.

The question is not only whether “Abortion: For Survival” speaks falsely or truthfully, but also whether its imbalance should disqualify it from being aired.

As with the controversial “Days of Rage"--a coming PBS documentary providing an essentially unopposed Palestinian’s-eye-view of the uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip--the answer is no.

Programs with diverse strong points of view are healthy and should be encouraged. Often a euphemism for timidity, “balance” should come in the overall flow of programming, not necessarily on each program.

Not that “Abortion: For Survival” doesn’t stretch the principle. Unlike “Days of Rage,” which provides a rare extended stage for Palestinians without endorsing their nationhood cause, “Abortion: For Survival” is an advocacy statement, clearly and surely.

Turner has defended his right to “editorialize” on his own network, but now clearly owes the “other side” one. The anti-abortion crowd deserves a comparable program on TBS at some point, a program that goes beyond tonight’s talking-heads follow-up pitting abortion foes Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) and March for Life president Nellie Gray against Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton and Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal.

Based on excerpts provided by TBS, the panel discussion is pretty much a standoff and no match for the video’s impact.

Such words and terms as as hysteria, misinformation, medical McCarthyism and domestic terrorism are applied to abortion foes in “Abortion: For Survival.” Subtle persuaders are here, too. Because the program characterizes abortion as essentially a public health issue, not a legal, moral or female rights one, it’s surely no coincidence that host-narrator Christina Pickles also just happens to be the actress who played nurse Helen Rosenthal on NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.”


Footage of a vacuum abortion being performed on a woman in the first trimester (“I wanted my abortion to be filmed because I feel very strongly about legalized abortion”) opens the program and sets the tone for the pro-choice message that follows. We hear about the failure rate of “contraceptive options,” and then about illegal abortion casualties as part of a grim global scenario for a society without legal abortion.

The camera pans a coat hanger--among the crudest instruments of clandestine abortion.

In perhaps the most controversial sequence in the anti-abortion “Silent Scream,” an allegedly 12-week-old fetus was shown sucking its thumb while flinching from abortion instruments.

“Abortion: For Survival” shows what it describes as the contents of an emptied uterus after an eight-week abortion. Pickles observes about the sauce-like mass: “It is clearly not a baby, despite what anti-abortionists say in their propaganda.”


There is no shrinking from broad generalizations here. Although abortion foes are no more homogeneous than pro-choice advocates, they’re depicted in the video as monolithically despicable. Hard-liners and moderates somehow merge into a single unmovable, illogical, obsolete Maginot Line.

Says Ruth Roemer, adjunct professor of health law at UCLA, in the film about anti-abortionists: “They have no right, really, to impose their views on the rest of society.” On the contrary, they have not only every right, they have an obligation if they truly believe, rightly or wrongly, that abortion is murder.

Dispassion is hard to come by in this volatile debate, and pro-choice forces have long faulted their foes for manipulating public opinion by using emotional ploys to shade truth and blur issues. Pickles: “Emotional voices can often distort issues. The voices you are about to hear are rational. . . .”

Although “Abortion: For Survival” does make its points mostly without the kind of maudlin excess typical of “The Silent Scream,” it ends with an elderly man reading a letter he received from his sister in 1934, before her death following an illegal abortion. “Must I keep having children whether we want them or not?” she asks.


The brother breaks down and cries.

This is not the first time Turner has let TBS be used to present an unchallenged point of view that he endorses. Airing on TBS last year was the massive documentary series “Portrait of the Soviet Union,” a Turner-Soviet co-production that was as glowingly optimistic about Soviet economic reforms under glasnost as it was exquisitely produced.

How did “Abortion: For Survival” arrive on TBS?

“We sent Ted Turner a copy because we knew of his interest,” said Katherine Spillar, national coordinator for the Fund for the Feminist Majority. “Then he contacted us through the Better World Society, saying he wanted to carry the program. I think its global approach is what appealed to him.”


And as for its approach to anti-abortionists’ attitudes about children and sex? Two statements stand out:

-- “The anti-choice or no-choice people really don’t care about people and they really don’t care about children,” Byllye Y. Avery, president of the National Black Women’s Health Project, charges on the video.

-- After a sequence on advocates of a proposed anti-abortion “human life” amendment, moreover, former Centers for Disease Control official Dr. David Grimes charges: “One oftentimes finds that these persons are also opposed to sexuality in general, and sex education in particular.”

Turner himself obviously buys the premise, saying recently that “Abortion: For Survival” shows that “pro-lifers” believe “sex is sinful.” Turner is one of the boldest and most refreshing entrepreneurs in the history of television. But there’s a word for someone who makes such a blanket indictment of an entire movement: