When Lana Wilson and Martha Shane set out to make “After Tiller” several years ago, they didn’t know that their documentary about late term abortion providers would be opening in the wake of catastrophic restrictions on reproductive health rights in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio. But, given the climate of the United States and the culture wars over bodily autonomy (be it reproductive rights, marriage equality or the right to be black in public), it’s not so surprising that their film would land in the midst of a firestorm of reproductive rights controversy and an increasingly vocal pro-choice feminist movement to back it up. Which is why “After Tiller” is arriving right when we desperately need it; a calm, rational and humane voice that is ultimately the right kind of pro-life—pro quality of life, that is, the lives of women and the lives of doctors who risk it all to help those they know are in a desperate situation.
“After Tiller” profiles the only four doctors in the U.S. who perform late term abortions (post 20 to 25 weeks), which account for less than 1% of abortions and are only allowed in nine states. The titular Tiller refers to George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who all of the doctors in the film worked with and learned from, and who in 2009 was shot dead in his church by an anti-abortion terrorist (that title seems only appropriate for an “activist” who goes to such violent extremes for their beliefs). It’s clear that these four doctors—Dr. Leroy Carhart in Nebraska, Drs. Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson in New Mexico, and Dr. Warren Hern in Colorado—are greatly traumatized by the loss of Dr. Tiller as a colleague and friend, but also find new dedication to their work and beliefs about women’s health in the wake of his murder.
Outside of their clinics, protesters, praying and blood-spattered posters herald the horrors of what awaits these women, but inside, that world is so vastly different, and the access to it feels like a precious gift. As sweet Dr. Robinson says, “No one WANTS a FUCKING abortion,” and for so many of the women who seek the help of these doctors, this procedure is the end of the journey for a wanted and planned pregnancy, stopped in its tracks by (for example) the news of a fetal anomaly which may prove to be fatal or full of suffering for the young life. These doctors trust that women have the ability to make these decisions, and know that they have sacrificed time and great expense for the trip and procedure (women travel from around the world to these clinics) and allow the women to make the decisions for themselves, though the doctors often find themselves caught in a decision-making quandary to possibly turn the patient down. Ultimately, they create an atmosphere of warmth, love, and caring for the women (and men), who are caught in one of the worst situations of their lives.
These heartbreaking stories are sensitively captured by Wilson and Shane, who chose not to show any of the patients’ faces to cloak their identities but also as a stylistic choice, and as they tell their stories in counseling sessions, the camera rests on a shoe fidgeting, or a hand clutching a tissue. Just focusing on their voices and stories is such a powerful thing within the film, listening to the women as the doctors and counselors listen to them. This gentle approach is what “After Tiller” does so well in its treatment of this tough material. The doctors and nurses themselves are gentle and compassionate, and Wilson and Shane are wise to mirror that in their filmmaking. While the sight of anti-abortion protestors may inspire a certain reaction from an audience member depending on their personal beliefs, there is nothing in the film’s presentation to vilify or ridicule them. They are presented as part of the reality and struggles, the obstacles that these doctors must face in order to do their work, but the film also allows their voices to be heard in this debate.
Because abortion is such a politicized topic, “After Tiller,” in a way, seeks to present this issue through a human, not political lens. We understand these doctors as people, with pasts, hobbies, spouses, pets and fears. We also see that as compassionate and caring as these people are, they are fiercely stubborn in the face of intimidation, protest, and violence. They, in fact, do this work because it is so threatened. As Dr. Robinson puts it, she decided to practice this type of medicine when she found out they were shooting doctors. That kind of bravery is both completely unfathomable and totally normal and necessary for these doctors to do their work.
The portrait of Dr. Carhart is particularly poignant, and the film does an excellent job in showing the joys and sorrows and struggles of this man’s life and work. With patients, he is as comforting and sweet as a grandfather, his warmth and understanding a necessary part of the process. He has also faced unthinkable tragedy, as anti-abortion protesters set fire to his commercial stable of horses, killing 21 of the animals. As he attempts to move his practice to another state after Nebraska passes a 20 week limit on abortion, he is met with protests, city council obstacles and unwilling landlords. We see Dr. Carhart going about his work, quietly and doggedly as we hear the voice over of protesters and politicians describing him as “evil.” The difference between what we see and what we hear is striking, unnerving, and highlights the dissonance between rhetoric and truth.
“After Tiller” is not an important film just because of its political and cultural relevance, but because of its humane and compassionate approach to telling the stories of these doctors, their work and the women that they seek to help. In a media climate where the entertainment industry is saturated with stories of superheroes and antiheroes, it’s not only refreshing, but crucially important to be reminded of the real heroes who quietly and determinedly walk and work among us. They wear scrubs, not tights and capes, and the work that they do is real, relevant and so important to the quality of women’s lives, a point which seems to get lost in the debate and din. “After Tiller” is a fitting and honest tribute to these real-life heroes that deserve their due. [A]