A New Ambivalence

Although plenty of people are passionate about abortion, few of them would spend 16 years and $7 million of their own money making a movie about it, especially one that tries not to take sides. British filmmaker Tony Kaye, who says he's not pro-life or pro-choice but "confused," can't even explain why he became so obsessed with the topic. But in his 152-minute documentary, "Lake of Fire," which opens in New York this week, Kaye—who also directed "American History X"—offers an exhaustive look at the extremes of the abortion fight. Pro-choicers will wince at the graphic footage of actual abortions—including one at 20 weeks, where tiny appendages are measured against a ruler afterward. Pro-lifers will be dismayed they're represented largely through the rantings of extremists like Paul Hill, who was later executed for murdering an abortion doctor. Though it mentions South Dakota's recent attempt to ban nearly all abortions, the movie concentrates on the protests and clinic violence of the 1990s. It doesn't take into account any of the profound changes of the past decade: pro-lifers' move away from the picket lines into state legislatures and courtrooms, the battle over "partial-birth abortion" that forced Americans to focus on the specifics of the procedure, or even how more-sophisticated technology is changing minds about just when life begins.

Despite our tendency to focus on the extremes of the abortion debate, many Americans—including those who say they are pro-choice or pro-life—have come to realize that the issue won't be settled any time soon. In a national poll to be released this week by the influential Democratic think tank Third Way, nearly three quarters said they wish elected leaders would look for common ground on abortion. The country is pretty evenly divided on their standing view of the question: 40 percent of registered voters say they're pro-choice, 39 percent pro-life and 18 percent volunteered the response "neither." (In a new NEWSWEEK Poll of Iowa voters, 17 percent selected "neither.") Although many liberals fear a reversal of Roe by a conservative Supreme Court, and many conservatives fear a rampant culture of abortion, much of the country in fact seems more ambivalent than adamant.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the politics of the question. Third Way argues that Americans have already embraced the moral complexities of the issue and that Democrats can win by acknowledging them, too. In the Third Way poll, 72 percent said the decision to have an abortion should be "left up to a woman, her family and her doctor," while at the same time 69 percent acknowledged that abortion "is the taking of human life." So while the hard-core activists may remain as entrenched as Kaye portrays them, much of the country is searching for a quieter way forward. For the first time in recent memory, abortion could be off the table as a general-election issue if both parties nominate pro-choice candidates, which, with Rudy Giuliani in the running, might just happen.

Most of the movement toward the center has come from the pro-choice side, largely out of political necessity. Some critics have complained that the Democrats' previous single-minded focus on "choice" made them appear morally adrift and cost them moderate votes. Though NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan says that being pro-choice is still a political asset, she also talks about the "common-sense goal of making abortion less necessary."

Some evangelicals—perhaps envisioning a pro-choice White House in 2009—have grown willing to listen to Dems talk about reducing the need for abortions, even if they don't agree on the ultimate question of banning them. Religious thinkers like Garry Wills, a Roman Catholic, have begun to say that abortion should not be a religious issue. In his new book, "Head and Heart: American Christianities," Wills argues that even the popes have said that abortion is a matter of natural law, governed by reason and science, not religion. "There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion," he says.

But staunch abortion opponents dismiss all the softer talk. "It's a political ploy to silence the debate," says David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. "They like to use the term 'common ground.' The fact is, either the baby is killed or it's not."

O'Steen is not the only one rejecting a centrist approach. Though the Supreme Court has no abortion cases on its docket, the next round of court cases—over small-bore measures like forcing clinics to have full surgical facilities—is emerging. Last week in Aurora, Ill., Planned Parenthood found itself defending its attempt to open a new clinic by listing its owner as Gemini Office Development LLC. The gambit failed; weeks of picket-filled protests continue. That could be new fodder for Tony Kaye, who wants to make another movie. Even if most Americans manage to find consensus, there are still enough die-hards to keep Kaye busy for years to come.