Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lake of Fire

I recently saw a documentary by Tony Kaye (who also directed American History X), called Lake of Fire. It takes the viewer on an in-depth walk through the abortion debate in American politics and included graphic footage of late-term abortions as well as interviews with violent figures in the pro-life movement, including Paul Hill, who subsequently went on to practice his professed view: “Murderers should be executed. Abortionists are murders. Abortionists should be executed.” Hill himself was later convicted and executed for committing what he and some of his followers considered “justifiable homicide.” We also hear from pundits, including Alan Dershowitz and Nat Hentoff, who express competing views on the subject, and Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey) on whose behalf Roe v. Wade was brought but who later joined the pro-life movement.

Let me say first that the film is quite powerful, if somewhat longer than it needed to be. One has a hard time watching without emotion a doctor measuring the mutilated feet of an aborted fetus. Late-term abortion, the exception rather than the rule, is morally troubling to most people for a variety of reasons, and the graphic depiction of the procedure accomplishes what sterile discussions might not. At the same time, we also hear about (and see a graphic photograph of) death from illegal abortion, a foreseeable and inevitable consequence of laws prohibiting the procedure.

The one aspect of the film that I found less than satisfying, however, was the general conflation of all abortions as presenting one and the same moral dilemma. Nat Hentoff makes the tautological argument that because a fertilized egg is a human zygote rather than a giraffe, it therefore follows that abortion is the killing of a human being, and accordingly a moral wrong. Peter Singer responds – frighteningly and gratuitously – that killing is not wrong in itself until the creature to be killed can think about life and the desire to continue living, a trait that even a newborn baby (as he has elsewhere said) lacks. There is little, however, to suggest the view that most Americans in fact hold – that abortion at the very earliest stages is not at all like infanticide, but that late-term abortions, to some degree, are. Adding to this omission is the failure to explain to viewers that abortion is not in fact protected, even under Roe v. Wade, throughout pregnancy. Two pro-life speakers suggest the opposite, and no correction is offered. This is unfortunate, given how rare late-term abortions truly are.

To drive home this point, the film has footage of a woman in the very early stages of pregnancy who visits a clinic to obtain an abortion. The professionals at the clinic are kind and gentle, and she reveals a great deal of information about her reproductive history and the abuse she has suffered over the years. They ask (perhaps because they are legally required to do so) whether she is likely to regret the procedure afterward, to which she responds that she is not. We also watch her abortion as it occurs and see her (and the products of conception) afterward. When it is all over, she expresses relief that she is no longer pregnant, and she looks visibly less tormented. Nonetheless, she suddenly begins to weep and express guilt just as she has begun to emerge from the experience.

Those who argue against a right to abortion might suggest that the woman here is experiencing “abortion trauma syndrome,” a condition that has become – even in the absence of empirical support for its prevalence – another argument against Roe v. Wade (indeed, Justice Kennedy cites this syndrome of regret as a reason to uphold the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in Gonzales v. Carhart. The movie dramatizes, however, without seemingly intending to do so, the very real possibility that repeatedly telling women that abortion is murder and that abortion is indistinguishable from infanticide may in fact bring about such a syndrome. This is, in my view, one more reason for educators on this issue to distinguish between different stages of pregnancy: those who undergo abortions deserve unbiased and accurate information rather than nightmare-inducing falsehoods.

Posted by Sherry Colb


Unknown said...

"The movie dramatizes, however, without seemingly intending to do so, the very real possibility that repeatedly telling women that abortion is murder and that abortion is indistinguishable from infanticide may in fact bring about such a syndrome."

This is more than a possibility, given the history of mental illnesses and conditions. In fact, a woman today probably doesn't even have to directly hear about the syndrome; the prevailing surrounding discourse can be easily internalized.

Sobek said...

Does the movie address efforts by pro-choice groups to prevent mandatory ultrasounds, which are a necessary element of "unbiased and accurate information"?

Also, does the movie explain where it gets its title?

Sobek said...

"of course she'll regret it afterward. she regrets it ever happened, but she does not want this child."

No exit, you seem to be conflating the "it" of abortion with the "it" of pregnancy.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Sobek's question re the title, at least two of the people on screen taking pro-life positions say that those who have or perform abortions will go to hell where they will be in a "lake of fire." Actually, if I recall correctly, one of these people says that anyone who does not accept his particular version of Christianity will end up in the lake of fire.

Paul Scott said...

Though I have many thoughts on this, the one that strikes me is the use of graphic footage of late term abortions.

I guess I don't understand why it is that people think this helps "humanize" or "put into perspective" etc. late term abortions. I think what it primarily does is test one's tolerance for gore (or perhaps for Gore). I could no more easily watch graphic footage of a late term abortion than I could watch a child birth, a heart operation or even the various fictional, bur realistic, depictions human carnage in many movies.

I just don't have the tolerance for blood and such that others might. I am, however, not so stupid that I cannot recognize to what I am reacting. I do not seek to outlaw open-heart surgery just because I cannot stomach watching them.

Sobek said...

Thanks Mike. That's what I assumed. "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." Rev. 20:15.

Paul, I don't think the message is "this is gross, therefore it should be outlawed." It seems (and I'm speculating, because I'm not the kind of person who would hold up a poster with a picture of a dismembered fetus) that the message is "you can't really argue that abortion doesn't involve killing a human, when these mutilated body parts very obviously belong to a human being." That is, the argument that abortion only involves a mass of undifferentiated cells is simply not true (at least, not always -- but I don't expect nuance about the morning after pill on a protest poster).

Paul Scott said...

Of course the argument is not about what is gross, but the emotional reaction is. If you were merely appealing to a person's reason, that is - you are concerned that people are actually unaware that a late term fetus shares all of the physical characteristics of a human infant then pictures of late term abortions are not needed to demonstrate this fact. The pictures are used to generate an emotional, not rational, reaction and that reaction is largely dependent one's tolerance for gore.

Sobek said...

"...that reaction is largely dependent one's tolerance for gore."

My tolerance for gore is, apparently, much higher than yours (I don't get the least bit squeamish about watching open heart surgery, for example), but I still have a strong emotional reaction to pictures of abortion. It's not the gore, it's the little fingers, toes, eyes and lips.

(I do agree that it's about an emotional response, but so are pictures of genocide in Darfur, CNN's Katrina news coverage, or Sally Struthers asking me for pennies a day.)

Sobek said...

Actually, let me qualify. My tolerance for gore in the sense of surgical procedures is very high, but I get squeamish about violence.

Rev. Donald Spitz said...

The woman laying dead from sticking a rusty coat hanger up her private parts trying to murder her innocent baby reaped what she sowed. She murdered her unborn child and died herself. This is true justice.

Unknown said...

Peter Singer responds – frighteningly and gratuitously – that killing is not wrong in itself until

I agree the Singer's view lends itself to potentially frightening misunderstandings - for example, that there is nothing wrong with killing an infant - but I'm not sure why it's gratuitous here. After all, the abortion debate is nothing if not a debate about the ethics of killing.

You point out that most Americans think early-term abortions are less like infanticide than later-term abortions. Fine. This is uncontroversially true. Whether this means that early term abortions are less wrong than infanticide is an entirely different question. Even supposing that most Americans do in fact draw this conclusion, the real issue is why they think killing a fetus is ok when it's less like killing a newborn.

Let's suppose that killing a newborn is wrong in itself (e.g. apart from any suffering it might be caused). The best explanations of this fact appeal to things like its being human or its being a person. But an early stage fetuses are also human and newborns aren't yet persons, so neither criterion can justify these different attitudes toward killing them.

By arguing like Singer does that there is nothing wrong with killing in itself, we can focus the debate on things like what makes killing bad and whether those considerations apply equally to fertilized eggs and screaming infants, and not get caught up in ridiculous metaphysical disputes about about what makes something human or a person.

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