There are only four public, clinic-based providers of third-trimester abortions remaining in the United States. After Tiller, a documentary that opens September 20, spends time with all of them, at home, in their practices, and even in the outdoor spaces they hold dear.
Until now, Drs. Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella, Warren Hern, and LeRoy Carhart—in New Mexico (Robinson and Sella), Colorado (Hern), and Maryland (Carhart)—and their stories have too often been shrouded in controversy, death threats, and politics. But thanks to the intrepid young filmmakers behind After Tiller, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, the providers’ deep humanity, and that of their patients, has been rendered visible, exquisitely so.
In short, After Tiller is a remarkable film. But perhaps you’re thinking, as I was before I went to a screening last week, that seeing it may be too painful. Perhaps you are already pro-choice to the core, but you’re struggling to gin up enthusiasm for a documentary that shows families in emotional turmoil as they make incredibly tough choices, and that depicts doctors under threat by anti-choice protesters with a violent fringe. Even the filmmakers have joked that their topic is a mood-killer. “It’s true that working on this film has definitely put an end to a lot of cocktail party conversations,” said Shane in an interview with the PBS blog Doc Soup. “Someone asks what we are working on, and they nod and say, ‘That’s interesting. I think I am going to get a drink.'”
But to see is to bear witness. And to bear witness, in this case, may be to alter the conversation—so guests at cocktail parties don’t turn away when the subject comes up.
Here are six
reasons to see After Tiller when it opens in theaters near you, and to do so as soon as possible; the better the film does in these opening weeks, the better the chance it will get a wider release.
1. It breaks a major film taboo, over and over again. Mainstream movies almost never contain abortion scenes, pushing an experience one in three women have into the shadows. Off the top of my head, I can think of less than ten abortions on the big screen, some of which are referred to and not depicted.
The patients in After Tiller are always shadowed from behind, but this film depicts abortions, numerous ones. The camera spends prolonged periods of time in the clinic, particularly during marathon counseling sessions with distraught, or traumatized—but inevitably sure of their decision—patients seeking later abortions. Furthermore, there are several scenes in the medical areas of the clinics, with patients in stirrups. It cannot be overstated how these scenes and images have the power to help normalize the procedure in a world where images of abortion are taboo.
2. It’s a fitting monument to the late Dr. Tiller. All the subjects of the film are still mourning the murder of their dear friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller, by anti-choice terrorist Scott Roeder. Tiller’s murder qualifies as terrorism because it was meant to intimidate other abortion doctors from carrying out their work. Every day Drs. Sella, Robinson, Hern, and Carhart go to work they face risk—a true tribute to the courage Tiller demonstrated.
As a monument to Tiller, the film also serves as a plea for peace. The doctors appeared in the film hoping to enlighten viewers about their work and perhaps even deter those who would commit violence against them. As the filmmakers wrote in their directors’ statement:
The reason so many patients agreed to participate in the film is because they never thought they would end up in such a desperate situation, and saw sharing their stories as the only way anyone could possibly understand. This is a refrain echoed by the doctors in the film, and was also part of the reason they decided to participate. They thought that if more Americans could meet them, and hear where they were coming from—even if they still disagreed with the work that they did—they at least might not want to kill them.
3. It was made by two young women filmmakers, another rarity. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, After Tiller‘s co-directors, began their filmmaking journey as young women fascinated by Dr. Tiller’s story. They decided to push their vision for this project, even with scant funding opportunities, and eventually got unprecedented access to patients and clinics. The already impressive critical success of their film is a tribute to the power of young female media–makers seizing the reins of narrative forms.
4. It will enable you to have smarter, stronger conversations on later abortions. Later abortion is sometimes seen as positive for the anti-choice movement, because public sentiment is less favorable to pregnant people
seeking the procedure in their second and third trimesters. And yet, as After Tiller makes clear, these are the most heartbreaking cases, cases in which a deeply-considered ethical choice is being made. The film illuminates the stories of actual women who get third-trimester abortions: a clearly confused rape victim, a financially struggling woman who was unable to pull together the money she needed to get an abortion earlier in her pregnancy, and mostly the bearers of desperately wanted children who learn about crippling birth defects and terminate in an act of mercy.
One particularly moving scene involves two couples, sitting in counseling together, revealing the horrible news they’d learned about the pregnancies they decided to end. We see only their hands, flexing and holding each other, and reaching for tissues, as they share their grief.
5. Despite the tragic stories told, the film is in many ways uplifting. In order to do their job, putting their lives at risk on a daily basis, the doctors have to have a fair share of wisdom and humor. T
he four doctors are clever and reflective onscreen, their families sweet and compelling. Beyond that, Shane and Wilson have woven together several real story lines that have narrative drive, such as Dr. Carhart’s search for a new clinic after regulations in Nebraska disabled him from performing later procedures there, and the individual trajectories of several patients that make the audience genuinely wonder what will happen.
6. Two of the doctors in the film have recently come under intensified threat from protesters—and all face regular threats. Recently, as Jill Filipovic reported at Salon, the pattern of protests in Albuquerque, where Drs. Robinson and Sela work out of the Southwestern Women’s Options Clinic, eerily parallels what happened for years in Wichita, Kansas, before Dr. Tiller was shot.
Antiabortion activists are descending on Albuquerque, N.M., picketing not just clinics but the city’s Holocaust Museum, and targeting local abortion providers as “killers.” … [T]he activists currently amassing in Albuquerque are affiliated with the very groups whose actions have a propensity to lead to the killing, assaulting, harassing and attempting to murder clinic workers.
The Albuquerque protests are organized primarily by Operation Rescue and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Their main target is the Southwestern Women’s Options clinic, one of the few providing late-term abortions to women in need.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carhart’s landlord, Todd Stave, has faced down a particularly vicious group of anti-choice protesters who picketed his daughter’s school (Stave admirably founded Voice of Choice in response and a little bit of his story is shown in the film) and all the clinics and doctors need intensified security measures, regularly.
These doctors are heroes, and yet they’re also human. They and their patients are the reason pro-choice advocates are in this fight—not for blanket ideological principles, but for people.
After Tiller deserves our support and attention. New Yorkers, Los Angeles residents, and everyone else with a screening nearby: Go see it as soon as you can.