Debut directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have
accomplished a tricky thing with “After Tiller,” their documentary on the few openly
practicing doctors of third-trimester abortions in the US which recently scored an Indie Spirit nomination for Best Documentary. They cut out the
white noise, and focus on a simple question: Who are these unusual individuals?
In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated while at church
in his Kansas hometown. Since his death, there are only four doctors in the United
States openly providing third-trimester abortions — Dr. LeRoy Carhart in
Maryland, Dr. Warren Hern in Colorado, and Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley
Sella in New Mexico. These physicians, all of whom were either friends or
acquaintances of Dr. Tiller’s, know the risks they run as they continue their
practices. They have had to endure vicious defamation, and the possibility of
physical harm is never far from their minds.
In one scene, we see Dr. Robinson chuckling about the lofty
situation of her house — a difficult target for a sniper-like attack. Dr.
Carhart recounts a story of his entire horse corral being burned to the ground
in an act of terrorism. 18 horses perished; luckily the Carharts’ daughter was
not working in the stables at the time of the attack. Carhart and his wife
subsequently had to undergo an exhausting cross-country search for a new office
location, when his home state of Nebraska passed the “Fetal Pain Act,”
illegalizing abortions performed later than 20 weeks.
Aside from these acute worries, there is the mentally wearing
daily grind of walking past protesters — some who call out, some who are lost
in prayer — as the doctors make their way to and from their offices every
morning and evening.
“After Tiller” acts as a portrait of the doctors, and of
their various patients — all of whose identities are kept anonymous — who
seek out the expensive and difficult procedure for a host of reasons, each one complex
and not without trying deliberation. Many patients’ fetuses have severe or
fatal abnormalities, discovered late in their pregnancies. If the children were
brought to term they would have a gravely compromised quality of life, if they
survived at all.
Meanwhile another patient’s pregnancy is the result of rape;
one patient has had to put off the procedure as she waited for adequate funds
to come in; one is 16 years old and has spent months struggling with the
decision, amid strong family pressure. As
is the case in life, some of the thought processes we hear are clearly defined, and
others are not.
Directors Shane and Wilson take a startlingly and
refreshingly apolitical approach to the film. Their camera is in these offices
to observe. The doctors they film, however, are in the more difficult position
of passing judgment. As Dr. Robinson explains during one of the documentary’s
most compelling sequences, she upholds a rigorous selection process for who
qualifies to receive the procedure — and who doesn’t. She understands this as
both necessary from a health standpoint but also ironic: Who is she to decline an abortion for a patient,
when her practice is about patients making decisions for their own bodies?
What perhaps is so radical about “After Tiller” is that it
refuses to be caught up in our culture’s loud and confusing clamor surrounding abortion.
It should be seen by moviegoers both for and against abortion rights, and indeed
raises issues that work in favor of both sides. Its gift is letting us glimpse
at people “on the ground” in this issue, and presents them only as what they
are: Humans, struggling with ideals, moral dilemmas, responsibilities and the
safety of themselves and those they can help. In that vein, I would be fascinated
to see a documentary as even-handed and dispassionate on those who picket
outside these women’s clinics.
Dr. Robinson says ruefully at one point in the film, “Nobody
fucking wants an abortion.” This may
very well be true. “After Tiller” allows us a fly-on-the-wall view of four
strong individuals who deal every day, struggling through extreme outside disapproval
and internal emotional exhaustion, with the service they believe strongly is
needed, and yet no one wants.
“After Tiller” hits theaters September 20 in New York, and October 4 in Los Angeles.