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