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Lake of Fire

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American History X's Tony Kaye's abortion film Lake of Fire shows just how scared we are of women. Kaye ingeniously brings you along to that point with footage spanning from the early 1990s, there is no narration and the characters speak for themselves.

Kaye's technique made someone like me, who was not overly invested in the issue, see what is really at stake in this conversation: how real the fear of woman is. I should say that I serve on a board that seeks to provide women in the third world access to doctors who can perform C-sections when their bodies are unable to give birth the natural way. I've always thought the women's healthcare lot was about education and getting access to proper care. Even when I read The Cider House Rules as a teen, I thought then, well you have to let women have abortions because they may die doing it themselves. And you can't stop women from trying to abort unwanted children. It's the poor women who suffer; the rich find a way to access care. A woman should have the services that modern healthcare can provide. She should have options; she should have choices, why argue with that? I never bothered to think beyond -- or into the minds of anyone who thought that abortion was actually murder. That's just crazy talk.

Consciously or unconsciously, Kaye's film shows that these arguments are beside the point for anti-abortionists. Instead, a deep fear has brought some Americans to wage their own private holy war -- and they've got a lot in common with the radicals we think we're fighting overseas. Many count themselves among the "American taxpayers party" (which seeks, among other things, an end what they refer to as the "welfare state") and ascribe to the "Christian Identity Movement," which reportedly shares kinship with neo-nazis and white supremacists in the United States. Eric Rudolph, who attacked a gay nightclub, an abortion clinic and then bombed the Atlanta Olympics and the criminals who murdered or attacked doctors and healthcare personnel participate in this kind of domestic terrorism.

"Hell is like a lake of fire," says John Burt, one of the characters from the film, a rabid anti-abortionist and former KKK member. People who are not saved live in eternal torment in that lake. Abortion rights advocates are in there.

Burt is easy to laugh at; his brand of theology has its limited audience. But the picture Kaye paints is a complicated one. Jane Roe from the Roe v. Wade case, for example, is now an anti-abortionist. We hear her explain how she got involved with the legal case, how her home was attacked, how she was mistreated by town folk, how she became despondent and cut her wrists. She tells us how she starting working at an abortion clinic and how she later befriended the anti-abortionists who bought property beside her clinic. Her biggest reveal -- she found Jesus with their help. Unbelievable!

In one of the more mesmerizing moments in the film, she says, she went to the back of the clinic and opened the freezer and "there were babies, man!"

There were babies.

Writer Nat Hentoff, an avowed atheist, says he simply opposes abortion because "you're killing a developing human being." Clearly the debate over this issue is more layered than meets the eye. If I were to accept that abortion were murder, what then?

When do we kill? When do we save? When do we legally murder? -- War? Accident by torture? Punishment? Self-defense? Carpet bomb? As Noam Chomsky says poignantly during the film, "the values we hold are not absolute." We kill when we have a reason to; when it's sanctioned as acceptable by our society.

"The right to bear arms" for example is commonly defined as "the right that individuals have to weapons. This right is often presented in the context of military service and the broader right of self defense." Implied in there is the right to kill, under certain circumstances. The contest over Roe v. Wade and the continuing debate over abortion show us that that right is reluctantly shared women.

I never thought of abortion in this way, and yet, this does seem to be the root of it. Why should a woman have a right to kill her baby? This is the real question the anti-abortionists are asking.

Chomsky's not impressed with anti-abortionists because they have largely shunned the easy ways to save innocent lives, "if you want to do things to help people, there are easy ways to do it." There are proven ways to care for people to bring abortions down. He says there are massive problems that they could do things about -- potable water, healthcare for women, caring for children who are born, among them, and they've largely done nothing about those things. If these people really care about babies, why are they not outraged at all the innocent Iraqi babies killed because of this war... the argument would go.

And yet if we put the right to kill under certain circumstances -- the implied right behind the right to bear arms -- I wonder, when is it that a woman kills? Put aside, for a moment, the woman serving in law enforcement or in the armed services, it's often something extreme or unfortunate: mental illness, abuse, self defense, survival.

The myth of Medea comes to mind, a fearsome blood-thirsty, extreme woman. As one version of the myth goes, she killed her children (and a whole lot of others) to spite her lover, to gain power, to get what she wanted. Scorned woman, we all know this archetype.

More grounded in our American story is Margaret Garner; Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is based on her story. Garner was a real person -- a mother, a runaway slave. Reportedly, she was in her early 20s, living in Kentucky and "killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery. She was preparing to kill her other children and herself when she was subdued" by slave wranglers.

I'm from the MTV generation (and now admittedly the VH1 crowd) and thought we'd gotten over this stuff already. As a black woman, I've often thought of male oppression of women as abstract and quaint, ridiculous like the 1950s and certainly not as far on my personal front-burner as racism. But Lake of Fire is part of the larger explanation of how the subjugation of women and other forms of oppression are connected.

Belinda Morrissey writes in When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity (Routledge, 2003):

For the fear of women, of their power to generate life and to take it away, runs deep in male-dominated societies... the feminine is often aligned with the abject, the criminal, and that the potential for feminine evil is considered ever present. Female abjection relates largely to the very permeability of female bodies; through reproductive and sexual processes, female anatomy blurs the line between self and other, clean and unclean. The woman's vagina is penetrable and engulfing, her menstrual blood is a primary abject pollutant, while her capacity to give birth raises the subject's terror of encompassment and subsequent loss of self. Finally, the baby's early dependence on the mother gives her enormous power, and the fear this evokes, combined with the abject nature of the female body, has been narrated repeatedly in myths and legends of evil and dangerous women throughout history. Women who kill confirm this archetypal feminine power, reinforcing the terrible antithesis to the myth of the good mother, reminding us that where creativity is located so too is destructiveness. The need to contain and limit the threat posed by such women is paramount in legal discourses, charged with enacting society's official response to these crimes, and in media discourses, responsible for communicating that reaction to the general public.

In short, it's deeply disturbing when women kill. It's no wonder some of us get really scared and upset at the prospect of this. For some, it's so clearly not okay, it's so clearly black and white: At a rally, Randall Terry, co-founder of Operation Rescue shouts into the crowd, "we are right, they are wrong!" Ah, the '90s -- if only our worries were that simple now. Then again, maybe not much has changed. The debate over abortion, like many of the contested topics in this country, is as intractable as ever.

As I watched Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, speak against abortion in the film, I thought -- here is a man who we know (thanks to Amy Berg's Oscar-nominated film, Deliver Us From Evil) protected a known child rapist in his church. It's time to be aware of all the interconnected mischief afoot in this country and start getting at the root of our fears.

I always thought the abortion debate was about women's bodies, at least for pro-choice people. But I think what the film shows is that the anti-abortionists are not talking about that, they are talking about the right to kill, which they view as wrong, at least when women initiate it as mothers. Pro-abortionists or pro-choice people need to address this, or both parties will just keep talking past each other.