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A key moment in Tony Kaye's black-and-white abortion documentary, Lake of Fire, sums up the film's philosophical stance on the issue quite succinctly: Alan Dershowitz, says simply, "Everybody is right when it comes to the issue of abortion." And although the film includes what could be considered "shock footage" -- things like a doctor casually washing off and examining the dismembered parts of a 20-week-old fetus in a colander to make sure he got it all out -- the film carefully avoids taking a clear stance on one side or the other of the abortion debate.
In that sense, Lake of Fire rather reminded me of last year's Jesus Camp, directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, which also examined religion and politics with an eye toward objectivity. In both cases, your take on the message of the film will depend largely on your philosophical point of view. To a lot of people watching Jesus Camp, the evangelical Christians teaching children to be "soldiers for Christ" were downright scary; if you're an evangelical Christian, though, the film views almost like an infomercial or recruitment video for your cause -- of course it makes sense to convert souls for Jesus from the cradle up, and to raise children to be wiling to fight and die for their God. The same can be said of Lake of Fire, though if you lean strongly toward one side or the other of the abortion debate, Kaye's objective eye may be harder to discern.
Let's start with the players: Kaye opens the film squarely on the "pro-life" side of the debate by introducing us to House Bill 1215, which makes abortion in the state of South Dakota illegal except for cases where the life of the mother is endangered. The bill, authored by Representative Roger Hunt, was signed into law by Governor Mike Rounds on March 6, 2006. Hunt is interviewed for the film, and he more or less confirms that in passing the law, the South Dakota legislature was deliberately violating Roe vs. Wade in the hopes that by the time the bill makes its way to the Supreme Court, President Bush will have weighted the Court in favor of a pro-life decision that will overturn the historic court decision that made abortion legal in 1973.
From there we volley to the other side of the court: an unidentified young woman making the point that we will hear again and again from the pro-choice team: the irony that the pro-choice advocates are the only ones who seem to be focused on actually reducing the need for abortion to begin with, while the pro-lifers largely also seek to push abstinence-only sex education and limit access to birth control -- the very things that can reduce unplanned pregnancies. Later in the film, we will here from other pro-choice women who speak to the heart of this subject, raising the question of whether the pro-life movement is really motivated, as they say, around saving children, or if the anti-abortion movement is really about controlling women and, specifically, women's sexuality.
Squarely straddling the fence of this undeniably touchy issue are folks like Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky, both of whom share a similar perspective on the abortion debate: It's impossible to say which side is right because, well, both sides are right. Chomksy sums it up thusly: "There are conflicting values, and taken in isolation, each of the values is quite legitimate. So the value of human life, or for that matter the value of the life of any organism, you should accept ... Well, that idea that life should be valued has come into conflict with another value, and we know what that one is ... the values that we hold are not absolute ... So choice is legitimate, preserving life is legitimate, and sometimes they run into conflict."
Dershowitz sums up his own quandry as a staunchly pro-choice advocate, who when seeing his own daughter on a sonogram, realized he viewed her as a person even while she was in utero -- but qualifies that by adding that he felt that way because he and his wife had planned the pregnancy and had wanted the child, and so he had viewed her as a person from the time the pregnancy was two to three months along. "I'm not sure how I would feel about a two to three-month-old fetus whose mother had decided to abort," he says.
It is true that some of the folks on the "pro-life" side of the philosophical aisle come across as a little ... religiously motivated and passionate, but it's also true that religious fundamentalists represent a sizable chunk of the pro-life side, just as feminists and academics make up a fair portion of the pro-choicers. Nonetheless, listening to anti-abortion activist John Burt, in particular, is rather disconcerting; hearing Burt talk in his impassive drawl about the "lake of fire" in which he believes all who don't believe as he does will burn for eternity is undeniably chilling. Whether on-camera in his interview for the film, or on the witness stand at the trial of Michael Griffin, who murdered abortion doctor David Gunn in 1993, Burt, a former military man and KKK member who is now an Assembly of God lay minister, is eerily calm and detached as he talks in his slow, perfectly calm about his beliefs on Jesus Christ and abortion.
Another activist, Andrew Cabot, comes across as rather more fanatical when he enumerates on-camera the various reasons for which he believes people should be executed. The "sodomites" (that's homosexuals, for those of you playing along at home) are a favorite target for Cabot's wrath -- Kaye finally gets him to utter the word "lesbian" but it's clear he doesn't even like the word to cross his lips. What of the blasphemers -- those who take the name of his Lord in vain -- (well, at first Cabot isn't clear on whether those folks are actually blasphemers, but a quick consultation with fellow activist Paul Hill clears that up) -- should they should die too.? Yes, sayeth Cabot, someone who uses the word "goddammit" is a blasphemer, and should be executed on the spot. And no, he's not joking. (Hill would later be the first person executed for the murder of an abortion provider for the 1994 shooting deaths of doctor John Britton and his security escort, James Barrett.)
No abortion documentary would be complete without the presence of Randall Terry, Operation Life founder. In this case, whether through timing or happenstance, Terry actually ends up looking like the more rational person on hand at a protest, when he gets into a conflict with the pro-choice contingent. We see Terry repeatedly try to engage in civil discourse with the pro-choice protestors, mostly young women who are pissed off by his mere presence, only to have them scream taunts in his face and mockingly sing "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!" at him. Finally he shrugs. "You see? This is denial. They don't want to hear the truth. You can't engage in intelligent conversation with these people."
Entertaining though it is to see drag queens dressed as "church ladies" reassure Terry that Jesus loves him even if he is a bigot, It would have been much more enlightening to hear one of the more rational and intelligent pro-choice folks featured in the film engage with Terry in a debate on the philosophical issues in question -- but then, if Chomsky and Rabinowitz are correct, and everyone's right anyway, what would be the point? If neither side is wrong, and the people on both sides are firmly convinced they're right and are unlikely to change that point of view, is there any point in discussing the issue at all?
The film, inadvertently, answers that question for at least the pro-life side, by bringing out one of the former big players of the pro-choice movement -- Norma Mccorvey, aka Jane Roe -- the "Roe" in Roe vs. Wade. Mccorvey talks about the historic court case that bore her pseudonym into infamy -- the law she once fondly referred to as "my law" -- and about the aftermath of that decision: the hate mail, the death threats, the terrible isolation. Still, for many years she was a pro-choice advocate, speaking out on the issue of abortion rights, albeit one largely kept of the fringes of the women's rights movement.
And then, in 1995, Operation Rescue moved into the office next door to hers. In the midst of the protests that gathered on the sidewalk outside their respective offices, Norma Mccorvey began to sit on a bench between shouting matches and talk with Operation Rescue's Flip Benham -- the man who had confronted her at a book signing, accusing her of being responsible for the murders of 35,000,000 babies. And somehow, by the end of that year, through her friendship with a little girl named Emily, the daughter of one of the Operation Rescue workers, Mccorvey had "found Jesus" and become one of the pro-life movement's most outspoken proponents.
Whether you fall on the pro-life or pro-choice side of the issue or, if, like Chomsky and Dershowitz, you hover somewhere in the middle, there's no denying that Lake of Fire is a masterfully made film that's as much a history of the abortion rights battle as a philosophical examination of its arguments. Kaye worked on this film for 15 years, painstakingly gathering the remarkable footage seen here, and his patient effort has paid off in creating a film about abortion that's both thoughtful and comprehensive. By keeping his lens aimed at that mythical middle ground, Kaye has done what many might have thought impossible -- created a film about abortion that both sides of the debate can watch and claim as their own.