Lake of Fire is a lengthy (two and a half hours) documentary on abortion, put together over the course of many years. It is mostly clips from interviews with spokespeople advocating one side or the other, academics, and a few regular civilians. It also contains footage inside an abortion clinic—clips from an abortion itself, staff interviewing a patient who’s come in for an abortion, etc.
Though it doesn’t blatantly advocate for either side, it probably leans to the pro-choice side. Like, say, For the Bible Tells Me So, those used to represent the conservative side of the issue tend to be angry, fanatical, mentally ill, etc., while those on the liberal side tend to be reasonable, moral human beings. However, the contrast is not nearly as stark. Lake of Fire includes at least some people on the conservative side who are not obviously stupid or crazy, and not all those shown on the liberal side are all-stars. So there’s the same type of imbalance, though to a significantly lesser degree.
On the other hand it’s important not to assume that strict equality in this regard would necessarily equal impartiality and lack of bias. (The mainstream media as well as their critics miss this point over 90% of the time, so it’s worth stating.) I’m sure the people who believe in astrology are not identical on average to the people who do not in terms of intelligence, education, articulateness, mental health, moral character, etc., etc. (or Creationists versus scientists, Nazis versus non-Nazis, people who think they’re Napoleon versus people who don’t), and so it would in fact be a violation of objectivity to present them as if they were.
Maybe the anti-abortionists in the movie seem to be disproportionately mean-spirited, violent, unreasonable, misogynist folks, because anti-abortionists are disproportionately mean-spirited, violent, unreasonable, misogynist folks.
So yes, the pro-choicers come across as somewhat more reasonable, intelligent and caring people, but it’s not by such a huge margin as to feel propagandistic, and I’m not convinced that it’s by a wider or lesser margin than in real life, and so do not have a strong opinion on how much if at all the film stacks the deck in that regard.
It should also be noted, though, that the movie contains possibly the most influential (though not thereby the most cogent) evidence available to the anti-abortionists, which is that the fetus, at least as the pregnancy gets farther along, looks like a person. There’s some pretty graphic footage from the abortion clinic, showing little fingers and other recognizable body parts. It’s the kind of emotional thing that’s most likely to sway people on the fence (not that there are many people on the fence on this issue). I doubt that a blatantly pro-choice documentary would include such footage.
One thing I’ve expressed frustration about with documentaries is that they tend to be scattershot, stream-of-consciousness, impressionistic affairs, lacking in sustained, coherent, understandable arguments. That’s true of Lake of Fire too, but maybe a bit less so than the average documentary. I feel like people on both sides of the issue were able to make some points. Not in a sustained, detailed, meticulous way like a logical-thinking scholar presenting an argument in an academic context, but at least above the level of sloganeering and bumper stickers. In some documentaries it’s all about the pictures, but here the words matter too.
I don’t know that there’s much if anything “new” in the movie to a person who’s even moderately aware of the abortion controversy and the most common arguments on both sides. But it’s a useful recap.
I had a lot of thoughts as I watched the movie, both about the abortion issue itself and how the movie handled it, as it kept me pretty well engaged most or all of the way. I’ll try to remember and note some of those thoughts now, not necessarily in any particular order.
How much of the anti-abortion camp consists of religious zealots? Almost all of the anti-abortion folks in this movie fall into that category, but to what extent is that just the sensationalism of picking out the most striking and controversial available clips for a movie? Polls would help, but would be inconclusive, due to the difficulties of measuring from people’s responses the degree of religious irrationality. Not everyone who labels themselves a believer, or even a fundamentalist, is going to have the same tendency to reject reason in favor of faith-based dogma.
But still, even if the proportions aren’t exactly what one would infer from this film, why does the anti-abortion side need faith to see the evil of abortion? They claim that it’s just so extraordinarily obvious, but if so then why do non-believers and more rational, liberal believers not see it, at least not in anything like the same numbers? There’s no such discrepancy with regular murder, or most other “obvious” evils. Instead abortion functions more like things that run counter to various faith-based taboos that only people raised in certain hardcore religious environments tend to internalize, so they then react viscerally against those behaviors—homosexuality, sex for pleasure, women in non-traditional roles, etc.
That in itself seems pretty significant to me. If abortion is an obvious case of murder, why aren’t the abortion protests filled almost in proportion with people of good will and good moral character of all religions, of all degrees of religiosity, and of no religion at all? Instead, it’s invariably fundamentalist Christians citing the Bible (or folks motivated by similarly dogmatic versions of Islam or other religions).
If the wrongness of abortion is a faith-based claim, then it really has no standing to be enforced by law in a secular society. It would be like mandatory church attendance, or the criminalization of eating pork. Not even a close call Constitutionally.
The movie does include one token non-religious abortion opponent—Nat Hentoff—who, not coincidentally, comes across as probably the most humane and reasonable of anyone on that side of the debate. (His position arguably commits the fallacy of “continuum,” but at least it’s not just angry Bible thumping.) So it’s not like there are literally zero such people. (I believe Christopher Hitchens—not in the movie—is another.) But even Hentoff himself and others comment what a novelty he is.
A lot of the interviews caused me to reflect on the fact that people say things for a lot of reasons other than that they believe them. Take, for instance, the fanatics insisting that Biblical law must be enforced in full. One example being that anyone who says “God damn” or otherwise curses ought to be executed. Do they really think this? Multiple of them talk like they do, but I think the answer is no, or at least it’s closer to no than yes.
It’s a context in which their declarative sentences aren’t declarative, they’re emotive. They have some weird emotional need to proclaim themselves the most Christian of the Christians, to insist there can be no nuance or incompleteness or doubt in their commitment to the Bible. And in some cases they like getting a rise out of people, getting attention, generating fear. They know what they’re saying is utterly outlandish, but the outlandishness is an incentive to say it, independent of the degree to which they actually believe it.
So they don’t really want to live in a world where everyone who’s ever cursed gets executed (and then tortured for all eternity). But for whatever emotional or psychological reasons they get off on talking like they believe that stuff.
I’ll make a related point more narrowly on the abortion issue itself. I think the vast majority of people at some level see the fetus as being a “sort of” person, not of the same moral non-importance as, say, an inanimate object, but also well short of the moral status of a full person. And I think they sense that the degree of personhood increases as the fetus develops, so five minutes after conception it’s only more important than a doorknob by a small degree, whereas five minutes before birth it’s only less important than a born baby by a small degree. (The current U.S. law nicely reflects this “gray area” moral status of the fetus.)
But I also sense in people a strong reluctance to admit that human status or moral personhood can be anything other than all or nothing, that it’s ever acceptable to regard someone as “sort of” a person. And I think this reluctance is stronger with faith-based beliefs, which in this case means most of the anti-abortionists. There are some on the other side of the issue who also see it as all or nothing, and opt for the “nothing” side—the fetus is just a bunch of tissue no different from an appendix—but mostly people on that side have at least some tolerance for gray. Religious folks, though, typically want black and white, simple categories.
That is, they want to say that. But that doesn’t mean very many at all really think that. Most of them at some level see the fetus as being sort of like a person and sort of not, but they loudly proclaim otherwise out of loyalty to their culture, out of a psychological need to have certainty and a lack of ambiguity and doubt, etc.
Why do I think their actual beliefs are a lot less extreme than what they verbalize? Look at their behavior. If a person really thought abortion was murder—not sort of like murder, not having some of the elements of murder, not a lesser crime than murder, but literally murder—if they thought that a woman having an abortion is exactly morally equivalent to that same woman walking up to a random person on the street and killing him or her in cold blood, then their reaction would be much different. It wouldn’t just be the occasional muttering wild-eyed lunatic who thought that bombing abortion clinics was a necessary evil to prevent a greater evil. That would be the anti-abortion mainstream. People wouldn’t content themselves with voting once every two or four years for a conservative, or signing an occasional petition, or even showing up at a peaceful demonstration once in a while. They would react like they were living in a society that wantonly murders millions of its citizens each year.
I know they say they see themselves as living in such a society. But that’s just it. It’s overheated rhetoric used for whatever emotional or political reasons, not a reflection of the actual worldview of more than a minute percentage of them, as indicated by their tolerance of abortion.
You think there’s harassment of women entering abortion clinics now? Imagine instead that anti-abortionists believed what they claim to. Then the “harassment” would be at the level of people who know for a fact precisely what Jeffrey Dahmer intends to do with the drunk youth he’s pulling into his apartment building. People would intervene in whatever way necessary.
Whereas if anti-abortion people see abortion as the wrongful killing of a “sort of” person, but with doubt and nuance and uncertainty about precisely the degree of personhood and precisely the degree to which it’s wrong, then we’d expect them to react exactly as 99% of them do.
But I think an even more telling example is available to establish that very, very few anti-abortionists believe a human being is a full moral person from the moment of conception, with exactly the same status and right to life as any other person, regardless of how obligated they feel to say that.
A large number of fertilized eggs don’t even implant. I think the estimate I’ve seen is 50%, but the exact figure isn’t important. If it’s 20% or 75% instead, it’s still a gargantuan number. If we take the anti-abortion rhetoric literally, then those are full moral persons dying. Not “sort of” persons, but full moral persons the same as I or anyone reading this.
OK, why isn’t that considered—by the anti-abortionists—the greatest human tragedy of all time, deserving of the maximal, urgent attention of the medical community and anyone with any compassion? And don’t say it’s because those deaths are not caused intentionally and thus are not murder like abortion, because they don’t have to be intentional to be a huge deal.
Imagine instead that that same percentage of twelve year olds—50% or whatever it is—dropped dead. Not murdered, just dropped dead due to some mysterious biological issue. Year after year, millions and millions of twelve year olds tragically die worldwide.
The alarm, the expenditure of resources to do something about this horrible phenomenon would dwarf concern over AIDS or anything like that in human history.
That’s exactly how anti-abortionists would react to the non-implanting issue, if we were to take seriously their rhetoric. There would be massive research and experiments with drugs (maybe some variant of fertility drugs?) that might affect the rate of implantation, speculation over surgical intervention, greater insistence on abstinence based on the urgency of not creating the situations that lead to these horrible avoidable deaths.
But instead, not a peep.
Because they don’t believe what they say. They don’t believe that a fertilized egg is precisely as human with precisely the same right to life as a twelve year old. It’s one of those faith-based things they think they’re obligated to believe, and thus they insist on it outwardly. But they don’t live their lives like people would who really believed it.
Moving on, I believe it’s Peter Singer who makes the point in the film that until we do the moral philosophy to get clear on why (born) people have rights and a certain moral status, of course our views on abortion will be muddled. Is it their rationality, their capacity to experience pleasure and pain, their capacity to conceive their own future, their membership in a certain species? Is it a combination of things? Is it necessary to have these things, or is potential enough? (What does “potential” even mean in this context? An unfertilized egg is a potential person as far as that goes.) Does a fetus have only some of these things? What about a just-fertilized egg? (Or an animal or an extraterrestrial?)
The interviewees offer up some of the common weak arguments on both sides of the issue. For example, that anti-abortionists are inconsistent unless they also oppose the death penalty and war. (Even Hentoff chides his allies with this howler.)
One, even if the views are inconsistent, that doesn’t establish that the anti-abortion one is wrong. (Maybe the views it’s inconsistent with are.)
But two, the views are only inconsistent if the anti-abortionist opposes abortion on the grounds that any killing of a human being under any circumstances is wrong, and in fact extremely few anti-abortionists (or anyone) believes that. Over 99% of the population, and probably over 99% of anti-abortionists, believe it’s wrong most of the time in most circumstances to kill a human being, but that there are exceptions. Anti-abortionists think that abortion is not one of those exceptions. They might be wrong, but there’s nothing inherently inconsistent or hypocritical about that position.
Another example of this kind of flawed reasoning being used to attack the anti-abortion side is the claim that anti-abortionists aren’t doing enough to safeguard the rights of the already born, for instance by adopting more babies, as if that somehow invalidates their position on abortion.
One, I’m sure plenty of anti-abortion folks do things like adopt babies.
Two, it’s an ad hominem argument anyway, so even if zero of them did, it wouldn’t make abortion right or wrong. Let’s say I regard it as morally wrong for people in Timbuktu to slaughter and eat their two year olds. My failure to adopt a Timbuktuian two year old to save it from cannibalism tells us precisely nothing about the truth or falsity of my belief.
At most a point like that might have some relevance to sincerity or motivation. So if, say, there are twenty things that people who adhere to the “pro-life” position could be doing in furtherance of their philosophy, ten of those twenty would limit the autonomy of women and steer them toward traditional gender roles and ten would not, and we find that they passionately pursue the first ten and give no more than occasional lip service to the other ten, then maybe that tells us something about the real agenda, conscious or not.
But it still wouldn’t directly address the abortion issue itself. Other arguments pro and con would be necessary there.
Noam Chomsky in the film offers up the kind of less fallacious, less objectionable version of this argument I have in mind. Namely if people aren’t doing the obvious things to alleviate the suffering and injustice of already born people, then they’re probably not morally serious folks, and so the chances of getting a well-developed moral philosophy with the key to understanding the moral status of abortion from them is pretty low. Better to consult with people who aren’t blatantly wrong about the easy cases and see what they have to say about the gray area cases like abortion, as they’ve earned the right to have their moral views taken seriously. (And most, but certainly not all, of those people—though Chomsky doesn’t say it—favor abortion rights.)
Just as an aside, agree with him or not, the one thing that stands out about Chomsky, in his writing and in his on-camera interviews like this, is that he is one of the most reasonable, calm, articulate, morally serious, good-natured, jargon-free individuals you’ll ever see commenting on political and social controversies. Which makes it ironic that the most common reaction his opponents have to him is that he’s some insane extremist, so far beyond the pale that no one who isn’t a hopelessly biased leftist could ever take him seriously. I think there are details, nuanced points, of his that are open to criticism, so he’s certainly not infallible. But he’s a lot more right than almost any other such commentator.
I agree that he’s pretty extreme relative to the mainstream in the mass media and such. But I don’t think that speaks poorly of him, or stands as evidence of his bias. I think it indicates that rational, fair-minded, compassionate, intelligent people are typically way, way to the left of the mainstream, which tells us a lot more about what’s wrong with the mainstream than what’s wrong with them.
Returning to Lake of Fire, there’s a quite effective stretch late where we follow a woman through her experiences in an abortion clinic. What most hits home to me in that sequence is how seriously she and the staff take her decision, how she is treated with a great deal of respect (even perhaps crossing the line into by-the-book, legalistic, scripted respectful interaction, but never mind), how no one in the process comes across as the least bit frivolous or evil, contrary to what one would expect listening to the anti-abortion activists.
It ain’t exactly gleeful, sadistic Nazis slaughtering people. It’s grown-ups, engaged in a grown-up medical procedure with important moral ramifications, where the woman is trusted to make her own decisions, surrounded by people who care about her and will respect whatever decision she makes.
That’s what’s under attack. That’s what has been made a lot more difficult, and what many people want to make impossible, because they insist the behavior of others conform to their own faith-based dogma.
The movie, by the way, is shot in black and white. I believe the filmmaker intended that to somehow symbolize that people tend to see abortion as a black and white issue without any gray.
The problem is, I know the term is “black and white,” but black and white films do have gray. What they lack is color. So the symbolism doesn’t even work.
But really it’s a very minor thing. For whatever reason, I adjust to black and white pretty quickly and am really not even conscious of it after the first five minutes. So I think this is a pointless gimmick that detracts slightly from the film, but only slightly. (I adjust somewhat to subtitles like that too, but not as fully. They remain at least somewhat burdensome and distracting. Subtitles adversely affect my experience of a film more than its being in black and white does.)
There’s a lot more to be said about Lake of Fire and about abortion, but I’ll stop here. I’d rate this as one of the top documentaries I’ve written about so far. Recommended.