After Tiller (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
One of the images that I will never forget after having seen Stephen Fell and Will Thompson’s documentary “Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion” is looking at aborted fetuses’ hands and feet. They were not attached to a leg or an arm. They were just pieces on a surface and yet I was horrified because I had not anticipated seeing anything remotely like it. To actually see a part of what abortion entails was a shocking experience, but one that is ultimately educational.
Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, “After Tiller” focuses on four remaining physicians who are able to successfully perform late-term abortions after Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist. Drs. Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Warren Hern (Boulder, Colorado), and LeRoy Carhart (Bellevue, Nebraska—when the film started shooting) risk their lives to provide a third choice—outside of having the baby and raising it or having the baby and giving it up for adoption—for desperate women who elect to abort their child during their third trimester.
It is not about the anti-abortionists and other extremists who picket outside the clinics. The film focuses on the people inside the clinic which includes the doctors, the staff, and the patients. The camera is a keen observer in that we learn what sorts of questions are asked to the woman who wishes to terminate the child, how the staff works to facilitate the process, and how the patients feel about their decisions and why they feel it is best that abortion is the best out of the three choices. I found it interesting when the doctors and staff would ask the mother if they regret or will regret their decision. All of their stories are very compelling.
Doctors are often thought of as a god-like figure, but this picture shows they are far from it. The four physicians are experienced and are good at what they do but they are not immune to the moral conundrums and ethics of the subject that is abortion. I related to Dr. Sella a lot when she talked about her reasons for doing the job. Her point of view mirrors my own. She observed that the protesters tend to talk about preserving life no matter what the cost. To her, however, there should be more to it than that. A person should not just be alive. He or she should be able to live a life of quality. The patients’ unborn children that they choose to perform the service on have a multitude of conditions and other abnormalities that would very likely prevent them from living a life of quality.
Each doctor has his or her own set of challenges. Dr. Hern talks about how the threats to his life contributed to his divorce and how lonely he had been since. Dr. Robinson struggles with a very complex question of who she should refuse to perform an abortion and what qualifies her to make the call. Dr. Sella acknowledges the difference between a ball of tissue versus a baby. Dr. Carhart attempts to find a new place to practice because Nebraska’s laws when it comes to abortion are starting to become more restrictive. Each is dealt with precision, an excellent pace, and insight.
There is a lot to see and learn in “After Tiller,” a documentary that sheds some light on a dark and taboo subject. One thing that will certainly stick with me is reading an e-mail from a woman who wanted to get rid of her baby so badly that she claimed to hit her stomach using the sides of the table and wearing a belt to sleep to terminate the pregnancy. She also swallowed pills to eliminate it. The words are mere texts on the screen but the images that form in our minds are so vivid, it feels like we are right there in the room with her.