Whenever I cover the topic of abortion in my ethics classes, I go to great pains to stress to my students the value of a dispassionate inquiry on the subject. I discourage use of values charged, question begging language of “pro-choice” and “pro-life” and encourage more descriptive language of “pro-abortion rights” or “anti-abortion rights” as a way to stress that even though the issue of abortion is in many way a question of competing priorities of the values of choice and life in this one area, nonetheless in the larger scheme of things people on both sides of the issue do believe in rights to life and rights to choice in general. The issue of abortion is morally about abortion and politically about abortion rights, not life itself or choice itself. That said, resolving the political and legal issue of abortion for many who are morally opposed to abortion but legally supportive of rights to abortion, the conflict really does come down to a decision about what priorities must dominate in a free society—-life in all cases or life in most cases but sometimes choice in the hard cases. And so while it is less divisive and less partisan to gut our language of discussion of value loaded words wherever possible, this is just one of the ways in which the attempt to be objective by trying to find a values neutral or non-partisan language in which to speak proves limited and possibly even distortive of the complexity of the issue at hand. It is deceptive to whitewash the fact that values are conflicting.
Nonetheless, my effort in my class discussions is to try to discipline my students to clarify their understanding of the facts and of the actual value choices at hand systematically, one aspect of the issue at a time, in order to clarify where the rightness or the wrongness, the permissibility or the impermissibility, or the advisibility or the inadvisibility of abortion lie exactly. I want them to figure out as specifically as they can where they think the lines need to be drawn and to work that out both morally and, separately, politically. I also stress so much objectivity because I want my students to practice fairness towards the multiple sides of morally contestable matters and I want them to be able to hear and understand each other and the differing philosophers we read in studying the issue. And I’m extremely proud of nearly all of my students I have had these class discussions with for displaying incredible openmindedness and even temperedness with such volatile matters. I know my own thoughts on the issue have deepened from those thoughtful and probing discussions we’ve had together.
Lake of Fire is quite an admirable film for going a further step towards effective illumination of the issue of abortion by not banning the heat and volatile passions that most of us feel when confronted with various aspects of the issues related to abortion. Nietzsche stresses repeatedly and profoundly the importance of finding the truth best not through greater and greater extents of dispassionate thinking but through the ability to feel through more and more affects. Correlately, he stresses that the truth is not to be understood from the right perspective but from through the ability to multiple perspectives, from seeing through a thousand eyes and gaining a fuller picture that way. On these terms, I think Tony Kaye’s film about abortion is an enriching experience worth having. Kaye represents a number of ways of seeing, a number of ways of feeling and through uncensored documentary imagery offers the viewer the chance to see a thousand striking images and feel struck by a thousand emotions. What I appreciate is that for all the vitriol and passion of many of the participants in the film, that feeling of fairness and perspective undergirds the film under Kaye’s direction and editing and I think manages the sort of enrichening of dialogue I would aim at through detachment.
A key virtue of the film too is that among the viewpoints represented are some of the “detached,” philosophical ones usually given short schrift (if any schrift at all) in the public debate. That said, the film does have some limitations that could have easily been remedied within the seemingly endless 154 minute runtime. For one thing, the informedly philosophical discussions could be more frequent and more involved than some of the multiplications of extremist voices and I think some of the issues of broader political nature that distract from the strict ethics of the practice might not be allowed to dominate so much of the screentime. A lot of valuable, helpful, possibly crucial philosophical and legal distinctions are conspicuously absent. Most egregiously absent are non-religiously based (or unexclusively religiously based) arguments against abortion, more thorough treatments of pro-abortion rights positions that concede the humanity of the unborn such as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s very famous “unconscious violinist” argument, the constitutional controversies involved in appealing to “penumbras,” etc., etc.
That said, while ultimately incomplete, the film does an eye opening and laudable job in general of bringing home the urgency of the political context to the evaluation of the morality of abortion but to the morality of those involved in the debate. There is a strong temptation for me, as a fetishizer of detachment, to want to only address the morality of abortion in a vacuum separated from the contingent political practices associated with the debate since those are theoretically periphery to the relative rightness or wrongness of the practice in abstraction. This film brought home to me some of the arbitrariness of drawing neat lines between abortion in abstraction and abortion in concrete political contexts. As much as being able to abstract the practice or aspects of the practice from surrounding context helps to simplify the issue in theory, it also obscures the interrelated consequences of one’s ethical and political decisions given actual conditions.
I felt like everyone was treated rather fairly. I don’t know how the hardline partisans would feel, whether they would all feel like they were treated fairly or whether they would feel like their side was caricatured worse than the other. I think the visual documentation of actual abortions made a strong visual, visceral case against the practice while the detailed documentation of the extent of theocratic and vigilante tendencies of members of the anti-abortion movement made a strong case against casting one’s lot with such authoritarian scoundrels. I think also the extensive discussion of the consequences of abortions performed illegally brought to life viscerally the real dangers of “coathanger” abortions and most of the philosophers included served to make a powerful case about the moral ambiguity and open door for tolerance of choice in the law with respect to abortion.
In sum, I think both sides make visceral visual cases. It may be unique to my temperment but I found the visceral case against abortion stronger but the abstract case in favor of abortion rights far stronger. The degree to which that is a function of the relative humanity and largeness of perspective of the advocates for abortion rights compared to the authoritarian, theocratic zeal of the proponents of restriction of abortion rights is hard to gauge.
Overall, there is much to learn and many, many important things to see and feel in this film even for those of us who have already learned, seen, and felt a great deal about the topic already. Abortion is an issue that I feel epitomizes Nietzsche’s intuition about the necessity of multiplying the eyes, the angles, and affects with which one looks at something if one is to truly understand it. This film is a far cry from a final word on the issue. But it is an effective and valuable aid in multiplying one’s perspectives and one’s feelings.