Third-trimester abortion, performed past the 25th week of pregnancy, is the subject of fiery debate between pro-choice and pro-life activists in the United States. The moving documentary After Tiller follows the lives of the only 4 known doctors who can provide safe and legal late-term abortions in the country. Presented at Sheffield Doc Fest 2013, it will surely provoke discussion, bring many to tears and challenge both critics and supporters of the practice.
In 2009, renown late-term abortion practitioner George Tiller was shot to death by an anti-abortion extremist while attending his regular Sunday church service in Kansas. He had been nicknamed “Tiller the Baby Killer” by his most vocal opponents.
His colleagues and close friends, Doctors LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson, pledge to continue their work amidst the controversy, facing social stigma and death threats as they help desperate pregnant women.
Dr. Susan Robinson is faced with difficult decisions when it comes to deciding who she admits to her clinic, a court of last resort. Some of the patients and their partners have discovered their baby has severe foetal abnormalities, which would result in a lifetime of suffering for the child, or an early death. Others patients include rape victims and teenagers with no family support.
“What I believe is women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decisions for themselves and their families,” says Robinson. “They are the world’s expert on their own lives.”
She knows that terminating a pregnancy is never a pleasant choice to make, especially past the third-trimester stage when the foetus is quite developed. “Nobody wants a fucking abortion,” she admits.
What keeps these doctors going is the thought of what would happen if they didn’t do this job.
Many women attempt self-abortion by using knitting needles, coat hangers or by hitting themselves in the stomach. Some would rather die than give birth at this point in their lives and contemplate suicide. Other ends up neglecting the child they never wanted in the first place.
Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson present the heavy subject matter in After Tiller with tact. They respect patients’ anonymity and instead turn their focus on the doctor-patient relationship, and the emotional ethical conversations that take place before and after the abortions. The doctors also reveal their own moral struggles with the type of work they do.
Faced with changes in state laws and the hatred of extremist anti-abortion activists who shoot at them, burn down their homes and kill their farm animals, these ageing doctors worry about the future of their practice.
“Getting somebody else who wants to do this is pretty difficult. Almost impossible,” says Dr. Warren Hern, when his wife asks about retirement.
The strength of this documentary is that while the filmmakers seem to “side” with pro-choice, they present many facets of the complex late-term abortion debate—showing that there is no clear division. It’s a film that will remain timely for years to come, as passions run high about this issue around the globe.