Late abortions are a tricky issue. Even many who consider themselves pro-choice struggle with the morality of terminating a pregnancy that’s 25 weeks or more along. In fact, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, only about 10 percent of Americans support the legality of such a procedure. Fortunately, it doesn’t really come up that often—less than one percent of all abortions are performed in the third trimester. And the patients who get them? They’re as conflicted as everyone else.
After Tiller introduces viewers to the four professionals who openly perform late abortions: Dr. LeRoy Carhart in Bellevue, Neb.; Dr. Warren Hern in Boulder, Colo.; and Drs. Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella in Albuquerque, N.M. All were close friends and colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, a faithful churchgoer and father of four who was assassinated in his house of worship in 2009. If his murderers thought Dr. Tiller’s death would dissuade others from continuing his work, they were wrong. They’ve dug in their heels, with one doctor deciding to offer the procedure expressly because her colleagues were being killed, and another declaring war on the ever-present protestors outside their practices.
Yet Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary shows that these men and women aren’t the devils incarnate they’re portrayed as by their critics. Rather, they are thoughtful, they are compassionate, and they struggle mightily with the same moral and ethical dilemmas as their detractors. By interviewing the doctors in depth and unobtrusively observing them consult with patients, the filmmakers pull back the curtain on a profession fraught with medical, psychological and familial complexities.
Their patients are carrying babies—babies they wanted—with fatal conditions that will only result in very short, painful lives; they want to ease their children’s suffering and give them dignity in death. Or they were victims of rape or incest. Or they were very young and just didn’t realize or were in denial that they were pregnant until it was too late. Their stories are heartbreaking, all of them—no one wants a late abortion, and none of the patients featured in the film are treating the procedure lightly. Rather, this is the worst day of their lives. Even still, the filmmakers expertly pace these cases, starting with stories you’d be hard-pressed to blame the parents for and progressing to thornier situations.
The women and men grappling with the decision retain their anonymity. In lieu of showing their faces, Shane and Wilson focus expressively on their clasped hands and fidgeting feet, resulting in an even more intimate portrait of their pain than if their tears had been exploited for the camera.
Meanwhile, the doctors’ stories are equally dramatic, the constant threat of death taking a very real toll on their personal lives. Yet their convictions—and their patients—motivate them to carry on.
Shane and Wilson do not give a voice to the pro-life contingent other than to capture on tape their loud protestations outside the abortion clinics, in public meetings and at church. Nor do they need to. Their approach in After Tiller is so compelling, revealing their subjects as sympathetic human beings simply by observing and talking to them about their work and their lives, that one can’t help but wonder whether so much of the conflict surrounding this very emotional issue couldn’t be averted by bringing the two sides together in simple conversation.
Directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson
Starring: Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson, Dr. Shelley Sella
Release date: Sept. 27, 2013