“These are the hardest questions. These are questions that are impossible of solution in the abstract.” Alan Dershowitz is talking about the questions of abortion, posed differently and yet equally intensely by adherents of the so-called pro-life and pro-choice “movements.” He’s just described seeing images of his own “little daughter” in the womb, his sense of marvel at the miracle of life. He remembers, the slightest hint of a smile passing over his face, the doctor telling him “that she was kind of reaching for the needle as the injection had come in, ‘cause she was given an amniocitesis [sic].” Insisting that his feeling was a function of his and his wife’s firm decision to have the baby, he doesn’t presume to know what anyone else might feel.
This brief self-reflection comes early in Tony Kaye’s documentary on the U.S. “abortion wars,” Lake of Fire. Dershowitz brings to it what you might expect, a partly personal, partly showy pro-choice argument, his appearance contrasted with that of his friend Nat Hentoff, who bolsters his argument that women do not have the right to choose abortion. The “developing human being,” he asserts, is “not, as they used to say on the other side, just a cluster of cells.”
Being reasonable men, both Dershowitz and Hentoff appreciate each other’s positions and acknowledge the emotion and potential illogic of others who take up their basic arguments. Still, each knows he is right, and therein lies the dilemma of abortion. Such contention forms the center of Lake of Fire, the result of some 15 years of work, shot mostly during the Clinton Administration, and released to theaters in a form that runs about two and a half hours. Many viewers will remember Kaye as the Brit who made and then disavowed American History X following disagreements with New Line and star Edward Norton, and the new film shares something of that now-cult favorite’s combination of passion, curiosity, and commitment. If it doesn’t take a side, per se, it does grant a range of speakers all kinds of room to state theirs.
Simultaneously elegant and harrowing, shot in grainy black and white, the film’s gorgeous visual compositions are contrasted with some brutal subject matter. The movie is explicit, from photos of murdered doctors to excruciating displays of emotion to abortion scenes that include tiny fetal body parts on tray, checked over by doctors who must ensure the procedure is complete. As these images are startling by their graphic content, others are striking for their art. In one scene, a clinic worker stands in blurry foreground while a man lurks across the street, watching the clinic. She describes a “voyeuristic component” to such intimidation tactics: “the closest those [single] men get to having sex is by preying on women they know have had sex and they get a libidinous thrill from it.”
But just as her interpretation seems reinforced by the image, other shots are harder to parse. The film includes testimony from professors and philosophers in their book-lined offices, activists on the street and doctors backed by diplomas. Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry speaks from his radio station booth or on the sidewalk, affirming his devotion to the word of God and chiding pro-choice demonstrators (“Jeffrey Dahmer believed in freedom of choice and was a homosexual and he practiced necrophilia”). And Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe,” who has since renounced her involvement in the 1973 Supreme Court case and now a missionary and “a servant of Christ”) appears in her home and then alongside her new employer, evangelical minister Flip Benham, formerly a self-described “drunken old saloon keeper” and currently the head of Operation Save America. These many speakers lay out the debate’s apparent deadlock, while the film also traces its background, and especially, the politics and religious stakes that make hearing the other side impossible.
Ever the virtuoso logician, Chomsky names abortion “a hard question,” then walks through some of the complexities of determining when life “begins” (after surmising that someday cells on a woman’s hands may be transformable into life and noting that everyone agrees infanticide is bad, he concludes, “Somewhere between washing your hands and killing your three-year-old, there’s a decision to be made”). He also deprecates the pro-lifers who ignore the fact that children the world over need only potable water to survive: “I don’t think we should be interested in discussing it with people whose values are such that they don’t care about the massive problem of killing and harming women and children that they could easily deal with and are doing nothing about it, in fact, making it worse.”
Even as Chomsky sets such terms of rational discussion, the film represents opponents who appear completely incapable of speaking to one another sanely. It follows a kind of narrative, starting with South Dakota’s passage of Bill 1215 in 2006 (which essentially outlaws all abortion, save for cases where the mother’s life is at obvious risk), then working backwards to trace the evolution of the anti-abortion movement from multiple viewpoints. As Hentoff observes, there is some “inconsistency among people who are pro-life… They ought to be against capital punishment, against war… and against the type of administration that sustains poverty.” They ought also to be against murder, but as the film emphasizes, not a few of them have taken up the holy mission of killing abortionists.
Two striking cases are that of Michael Griffin, who shot Pensacola’s Dr. David Gunn in the back three times in 1993 (shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies,” then turning himself in to authorities), and James Kopp, whose 1998 sniper-style shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian through his Amherst, New York kitchen window was surely sensational. Griffin was affiliated with the Army of God, and his defense team argued that his exposure to graphic abortion films by former Klansman John Burt constituted a form of brainwashing. Kopp’s case was similarly complicated by his affiliation with the Lambs of Christ, repped here by Father Westlin, whose appearance can only be called unnerving. Surrounded by young girls in white dresses (close-ups of their faces show some determinedly looking off screen, one or two smiling, nervous before the camera), Westlin decries those who are “laying a horrible trip on this little girl, they’ve been seduced by Satan into killing our children.”
Westlin and others (say, John Burt, Pat Buchanan, or Paul Hill, who was executed in 2003 for killing Dr. John Britton in Pensacola) state their cases plainly, though their language can be chilling. Speaking on a stage, Allan Keyes pronounces the great good gift of “freedom that’s at the root of our Christian faith”: “Once you have opened your heart to Jesus… you are no longer subject to that external shackle of the law because the law flowers and blooms within you and it shapes your judgment and it moves your limbs.” As much as such belief leads men like Eric Rudolph to murder, however, bioethicist Ellen Moskowitz cautions, we must “try to move away from a very strict rights language” and consider instead the complications of contexts—for women and fetuses. Men, she suggests, need to see such contexts.
The problem presented in Lake of Fire—the inability to move beyond absolutist thinking and formulations of “rights” that are strictly oppositional—has only become worse, of course. The film leaves open the question of when life begins and the moral ambiguities of abortion, especially in a segment that follows a woman who goes through an abortion on camera, the seriousness of the decision evident in every delicately framed detail (her exit interview is tearful, emphasizing her exhaustion and her belief in the rightness of her decision, while acknowledging its difficulty: “It’s more in my heart than in my stomach now”). But for all its even-handedness regarding abortion, Lake of Fire makes a strong case that inflexibility and claims of high ground have been manipulated to political advantage by the so-called religious right. Author Frederick Clarkson describes the movement’s long-term goals. “The reconstructionists are a very quiet movement, they know they are revolutionaries… and that the Constitution stands in the way of their goal, which is a Christian theocracy.” As the U.S. elections media coverage becomes incessant, it’s worth keeping in mind that actual listening to other “sides” can be enlightening.