In light of the Supreme Court decision to uphold the federal ban on so called, partial birth abortion, we can expect the religious right to take every advantage of the court's apparent opening of the door to increased state level regulation of abortion. The issue that has riven American politics for decades, will continue to do so.
Although some Inside the Beltway Dems have sought to downplay the issue -- that is clearly no longer an option, as state-level legislation and a likely flurry of court cases designed to test how far the court will go in restricting abortion rights, if not completely overturn Roe vs. Wade promises to define the politics of the issue for a long time to come. The additional factor, as I have pointed out several times, is the Hollywood documentary film Lake of Fire, scheduled for release in the Fall, and currently making the rounds of film festivals.
The synopsis on the distributor's web site states:
"Fifteen years in the making,this epic documentary stands unquestionably as the definitive work on the ever-dividing issue of abortion. Filmed entirely in black and white, director Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire probes into the complexities of abortion proving both sides of the issue have equal historical and moral credibility. It is measured, intelligent, and suitably objective, regardless of one's own position."
While one can always take a distributor's blurb with a grain of salt, in fact, reviewers so far tend to agree with this assessment.
It is important not to lose sight of the signficance of this and how, along with the recent court decision, it may contribute to an already altered political landscape. The Supreme Court handed the religious right a signficant victory, and early indications are, we will will see a lot of fresh energy and new legislative and legal initiatives.
Meanwhile, for a film to have impact, of course people have to see it; it has to be discussed in homes and bars and in the media. But will it? This is a topic that makes people uncomfortable, for many reasons, and many people avoid conversations about it, because the conversations about abortion tend to be tendentious. This is especially tricky territory for a lot of pols, who know they can't please everyone. Abortion opens up questions of the meaning of life and death; of who gets to decide and under what circumstances -- things people, of course, feel strongly about -- and obviously much, much more. And yet, the interest groups involved in the issue, tend to be politically potent and have strong views that pols oppose at their peril.
There are many who wish the issue would go away, but the simple fact is, that it is not going to go away. One of the reasons for this is that the religous right will never let it go away. Thus the political reality at the moment is that the court ruling gives the religious right a political boost at a time when it has been regrouping in the wake of the 2006 elections, and they intend to take every advantage.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) told the Associated Press:
``We've been losing fight after fight after fight,'' she said, adding that people have become complacent about protecting abortion rights because they have existed for more than a generation.
The upholding of the ban was the culmination of a dozen years of efforts by abortion opponents to outlaw a procedure that public opinion polls have shown most Americans believe should be illegal.
The public is nearly evenly split on abortion in general, polls show, but the vast majority of Americans back some restrictions on it. Surveys have found that more than 60 percent favor banning the procedure outlawed in Wednesday's ruling. That makes the ban an exceedingly difficult political proposition even for Democrats who are strong champions of abortion rights.
``It's a Democratic Congress, but it's not a pro-choice Congress,'' NOW's Gandy said, adding that it was unlikely that lawmakers would step in to try to reverse the ban or take other action to beat back additional abortion curbs.
The AP also reported:
``We have a court now that has correctly yielded to the Congress and the legislative branch,'' said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. ``This will bolster state legislators who are reflecting the views of their constituents on abortion.''
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a leading sponsor of the ban, said the court's ruling could return abortion-rights questions to the states, where he said they belong.
The news so far makes clear that the religious right will use the opening provided by the ruling to push the envelope. Of course, this has already been happening, as Moiv has reported at Talk to Action, many times. I think that Senator Feinstein hits the nail on the head. While the religious right has been active in undermining abortion rights, too many of those who support abortion rights have taken abortion rights for granted.
This taking the right for granted, seems to me to have two main foundations. One is the belief that Roe will not be overturned no matter what; and the other is the belief that religious right cannot gain sufficient political power to signficantly curtail abortion rights, or anything else that matters.
While I have no panacea to offer in light of these observations, I think that at the very least it is important to be able to say that one does not have to believe that the court will ultimately overturn Roe to recognize that the many issues around abortion will continue to keep the matter alive; deeply contentious; and far from settled for a long time to come. Therefore, one of the challenges of our time is going to be to get a lot better at doing the politics of abortion and stop the foolish game of avoidance.
And this brings me back around to Lake of Fire.
I believe that this film that is going to affect the national discourse in unpredictable ways. I have not yet seen it, but I have read quite a bit about it, and play a role in it. The film opens up the matter of antiabortion violence in a way that has at least one antiabortion leader worried; and it is the first film to show an actual surgical abortion. The film is said not to be intentionally grotesque or sensational, but unflinching in its approach. That such a film may receive a wide audience, is something to take into serious consideration; and those who understand what the impact of a major film can be, should go out of their way to see the film, and consider what it may mean as the audience widens and it begins to inform the national conversation. That it may do so in the context of a reenergized antiabortion movement, and as the primary season gets fully underway, means that the way abortion politics is done may be about to change dramatically.
Lake of Fire has, to my knowledge, been screened so far at festivals in Tornonto, Santa Barbara, Philadephia, New York City, and Durham, North Carlolina. The Nahsville Film Festival is screening Lake of Fire Monday, April 23rd; Berkshire International Film Festival in May.
Nashville Scene blurbs the film this way in its advance coverage of the Nashville Film Festival:
LAKE OF FIRE (6:45 p.m.) Beautifully (and ironically) shot in black-and-white over 17 years by director Tony Kaye, best known for the Edward Norton neo-Nazi drama American History X, this staggering documentary about the abortion debate leaves no position unchallenged-yet both sides may likely feel that it proves their point. Kaye talks without judgment to pro-choice and anti-abortion zealots, incorporates a spectrum of voices from Noam Chomsky to Nat Hentoff to pro-life activist Randall Terry, follows a clearly conflicted woman to her appointment at a clinic, and gives equal consideration to murdered clinic workers and the clearly human remains of aborted fetuses. The result is not a tendentious screed but an engrossing and extraordinarily rich examination of moral impasse. It forces both sides to grapple with the real issue: the sanctity of life. Kaye will attend.
Update [2007-4-22 4:12:23 by Frederick Clarkson]: Here is The Boston Globe's mini-review from the Sundance Film Festival:
"Lake of Fire"
Tony Kaye's epic documentary on the abortion wars stunned Sundance audiences. Kaye includes voices of reason and fanaticism on both sides, and if the ravings of the religious right are hard to stomach, so is the graphic footage of abortion procedures. Which is precisely the point: "Lake" wants to break through decades of encrusted rhetoric to make us think again. With one slow reveal of Norma McCorvey , a.k.a. "Jane Roe ," the movie upends all you assumed about this subject. -- T.B