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‘Lake of Fire’ and Why Pro-Choicers Can’t Win the War of Symbols

Lake of Fire.Photo: Courtesy of Think Film Company


There are a couple of lines in my review of Lake of Fire that got me a sharply worded e-mail from a female critic I respect a great deal:

The sad truth is that the anti-abortionists [in the film], even some of the fundamentalist nutbirds who’d like to see people executed for taking the Lord’s name in vain, have far more weight than the people on the pro-choice side, who seem flip in their dismissals and also have nothing comparable to giant blowups of dead fetuses. (They have murdered doctors and dead women with protruding coat hangers, but fetuses trump everything.)

I regret the tone of those lines, which sought to put a sardonic spin on what was meant to be sobering — and which struck my colleague as insensitive to the sight of a woman in a pool of blood with the clothes hanger still inside her. But what emerges graphically from Lake of Fire and an earlier documentary, Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion, is that there’s no way pro-choice activists can win the war of symbols. Whatever your worldview, there is nothing as wrenching as the image of a dead baby. You say an aborted fetus isn’t a dead baby? We can debate that issue forever, but the grisly placards held up by anti-abortion activists show fetuses (most taken from Dumpsters) with the unmistakable features of infants.

Of course the photo of a woman who fatally hemorrhaged in the course of a coat-hanger abortion is ghastly and heartbreaking. But most people who believe that terminating a pregnancy is murder will think, “Very sad, but that’s what happens…” And they’ll have less sympathy for obstetricians stopped by bullets from continuing to practice their “unholy” procedure. On the other hand, those wholly innocent babies … those little hands and feet … Even Alan Dershowitz, a strong supporter of choice, admits in Lake of Fire that memories of seeing the fetal heartbeats of his (now grown) children remain lodged in his mind as he grapples with the issue of when life begins.

Both films (Lake of Fire more so) suggest that a significant percentage of anti-abortion leaders (and followers) are fanatics with little regard for babies after they’re born and no interest in bringing down the number of abortions by promoting birth control. (They’re not on the streets protesting the deaths of children and babies in places like Iraq, either.) They’re bugged by sexual choice no less than the Islamic fundamentalists who have sworn revenge on Western freedoms — a point made explicitly by Dinesh D’Souza in his book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. (It would seem that, given D’Souza’s sympathy for the aims of our would-be destroyers, that the enemy at home is not the cultural left.) But when you watch the demonstrations and the counterdemonstrations in both documentaries, it’s the anti-abortion activists who stand gravely, photos of fetuses upraised, sometimes even (in a new tactic) engaging the other side in measured, empathetic tones. The pro-choice demonstrators, on the other hand, are sneering and profane. They shout “fucking Fascists” at people who (a) are not behaving like Fascists and (b) probably don’t fuck enough.

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