If you want to have an interesting night in, gather a group of five or more friends in your living room and watch the DVD Lake of Fire. Tony Kaye’s 2006 documentary portrays both sides of the abortion debate in the US, with footage from the last twenty years or so. In the film, through interviews or film recordings, many are given a chance to voice their opinions, from Noam Chomsky to Randall Terry to abortionist killers Paul Hill and Michael F. Griffin to Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) herself, who, under the guidance of Christian Minister Philip “Flip” Benham, has become a pro-life evangelical Christian. The film will have you and your fellow viewers running hot and cold throughout, as Kaye alternates conflicting positions on the debate.
The first thing Lake of Fire brings to light, and what came as a surprise to me, is how very alive and well this debate is raging in the today’s political arenas on either side of the battle line. Take, for example, the recent referendum in South Dakota on whether or not to make abortion illegal in all situations except to save the pregnant woman’s life. In Alberta, Canada there has been the tabling of a private members bill designed to give partial rights to the unborn fetus, which some pro-choicers feel, if it becomes law, could also criminalize pregnant women for behaviours perceived to harm their foetuses. On March sixth of this year, it passed the second reading in Alberta Parliament, to very little media attention.
The complete lack of controversy surrounding this bill is indicative of the average Canadian’s wariness about discussing the issue of abortion. We might broach the topic over coffee, but as soon as the discussion begins to escalate into a debate we change topics to the weather or sports. Americans, as portrayed in Lake of Fire, appear to be far more enthusiastic in the debate. A scene best representative of this assertion is a confrontation at a demonstration between religious activist Randall Terry and a group of pro-choice drag queens. Randal desperately tries to ignore the drag queens and appeals to the women in the crowd while the queens berate him with catcalls and chants. The scene not only demonstrates the allowable extremes in American society, but also the fact that neither side of the abortion debate has come any closer to some kind of middle ground.
Canada, though more subdued on the issue, houses a good example of this eternal divide. Here, there are no legal restrictions on abortion, and pro-choice advocates fight to keep it that way. This of course, has those of the pro-life movement gnashing their teeth, since in their view, the fetus is a living baby whose life must be protected at all costs. And what I am sure sends pro-lifers up the wall is the idea of a late-term abortion, which many of them believe is a good part of all abortions (actually only about 3% occur after 16 weeks in Canada). On the other hand, since the majority of pro-lifers are religious, not only are they against abortion, but most forms of contraception (rhythm method excluded). Now, though I am pro-choice, I do have a limit when it comes to a late-term abortion of a potentially viable fetus. However, from pro-choice perspective, when the people on the other side of this debate can’t even concede to the idea of someone using a condom, a time-tested preventer of a possible abortion, I can understand why pro-choices don’t want to open the door to a concession of any kind.
The second thing that Lake of Fire brings to light is the horrible reality of what an abortion is. To myself and most of the people I know, the abortion debate is strictly on a philosophical level. Despite what some people might claim, not everyone is having abortions left, right, and centre. But Tony Kaye steers the argument from the abstract to the concrete by showing footage of actual abortions. These sequences are spliced between the verbal salvos of both camps. In one, the cameraman follows a woman from being picked up in the morning by her boyfriend, through the waiting room, the preliminary interviews, and then finally, the actual abortion. No detail is spared. It is very upsetting to watch. One of Tony Kaye’s objectives here is to ensure the viewer understands that this argument is over of flesh and blood. Another objective, I believe, is to dispel the myth that many women have abortions while on route to the shopping mall. As the sequences ends with the woman almost being carried out the clinic door by her boyfriend, there is no room to doubt that for her, this was an agonizing decision and truly awful ordeal.
It is precisely because of this intimacy that the abortion debate is so very subjective, and this subjective line is drawn along who or what is to be considered more important, the woman or the fetus growing inside of her. The attitude of the pro-choices falls obviously on the side of the woman, and that any woman who is pro-life has been brainwashed by the dogma of religion and is being used as a political tool for televangelists.
Now, the attitude of pro-lifers is difficult in getting out of them. Outwardly, from my experience, their response is that they care for both the woman and child equally, and it is simply a matter of putting their child up for adoption if they don’t want it afterwards. However, this way of thinking demonstrates that the pro-lifers priority is solely with keeping the fetus alive. Once the baby is born, concern over the quality of life of the baby and its mother diminishes, if not vanishes all together. The fact that there are half a million children in American orphanages today should dispel the myth of anyone’s willingness to tow the pro-life line and adopt. To be fair, however, those of the pro-life movement also claim that women “on the other side” have been brainwashed, not by televangelists, but by feminists and liberals and the men who are sleeping with them.
How do you convince someone to change their mind and care more about one than the other? Well, you can cover the countryside with billboards depicting dead fetuses. You can host and televise rallies to gather support. You can upload expert opinions to YouTube. But really, if there is to be a change, it comes when you are actually put in the situation you are fighting for or against. I used to be pro-life, and religious. At the time, my attitude was: here are the rules from above, break them and it’s you’re problem, not the baby’s. And this was all fine and dandy, until I got a girlfriend, and it suddenly dawned on me how easy it had been to hold up a placard and say: these are the standards, take them or leave them. Even worse, I wasn’t simply offering up these standards, I had been passively part of an old mechanism that forces these standards onto others. I then realized, in face of someone I cared for deeply, these values, which would seek to criminalize her and diminish her as human being, were not based in reality. Since then, all the billboards in the world haven’t been able to change my mind.
Where’s the baby in my line of reasoning? Where is the child that would be murdered? Even when I was pro-life, deep down inside, I was never really convinced that an abortion is murder. Are the 40 million women in North America who’ve had abortion murderers? If abortion was to become illegal tomorrow, should they all go to jail? The murder of 40 million people is essentially a holocaust. And what’s to become of the women who seek illegal abortions? Should they and their accomplice doctors go to prison as well? Again, for me, the values of the pro-life movement just don’t jive with reality.
Well, look at me. See what this issue does to a person? I’ve taken a movie review and made it personal. I’ve even forgotten the third thing I was going to mention about Lake of Fire.
Oh yeah, great movie.