The wrenching national debate over abortion reached a new stage this week as abortion foes brandished a powerful weapon that has put pro-choice forces on the defensive. A 30-minute film called ``The Silent Scream,'' which depicts an abortion from the viewpoint of a 12-week-old fetus, has created a sensation in the stalemated abortion controversy. The Crusade for Life -- whose founder, Donald S. Smith, produced the film -- this week blanketed official Washington with videocassette copies, giving one to every member of Congress as well as US Supreme Court justices.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortion clinic director who narrates the film, told a gathering Tuesday at the White House: ``It is my perception that we cannot understand any public issue until we see it from the victim's point of view.'' President Reagan has called the film a ``chilling documentation of the horror of abortion.''
``It's really quite moving,'' concedes Ron Fitzsimmons, a lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). ``I can see how it would affect people.''
Judith Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), has attacked the film as ``fraudulent'' and ``emotionally exploitative.''
The movie, which uses a computer technique to translate sound waves from the womb into an image, has raised new concerns within the pro-choice movement. Ms. Goldsmith protests that the film ignores the viewpoint of women. ``There is a person when a fetus has been born,'' she said, adding: ``I will give greater rights to a living, breathing woman than a microscopic egg. A woman can feel pain. A fetus cannot.''
Abortion-rights supporters are planning possible responses to the film. ``If we let it go without rebutting it, it could possibly do some damage,'' says Mr. Fitzsimmons.
NARAL is proposing a national ``speak out'' publicizing personal experiences with abortion ``to show there are women involved in this issue as well,'' according to the pro-choice lobbyist.
Fitzsimmons says congressional support for legalized abortion is holding firm, even if opposition to federal funding for it has solidified. Still, he expects to pay visits to members of Congress who may be a little ``shaky'' after the recent antiabortion publicity blitz.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public, results are still blurry. Pollsters have consistently found that a majority supports abortion rights in some cases, but beyond that, answers vary according to the phrasing of the question.
In a lively debate Tuesday with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, NOW president Goldsmith concentrated her fire on ``The Silent Scream.''
Mr. Falwell cited a Newsweek poll that found Americans favored, 58 to 36 percent, a ban on abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is endangered.
A recent Louis Harris poll, however, found that 56 percent backed the Supreme Court ruling giving a woman full abortion rights during the first three months of pregnancy.
In what could be an important tactical shift, Falwell and some other abortion foes are moderating their stand to allow for exceptions. That bow to pragmatism brings them closer to the majority opinion and perhaps to winning some new restrictions on abortions.
``We do not believe there'll be an absolutist amendment'' banning abortion, said Falwell.