Directed by: Martha Shane & Lana Wilson.
Written by: Greg O'Toole & Martha Shane & Lana Wilson.
The argument about abortion in America is largely an emotional one. To the pro-life side, it’s about “murdering babies” – which they feel in wrong in any circumstances for any reason. To the pro-choice side, it is about a woman’s right to choose – to have control over their own body. Things get even more heightened when third trimester abortions are discussed. At this point, the fetuses are close to being fully formed, and in some cases may actually be able to survive birth and delivery. To many, even pro-choicers (full disclosure, I am one), third trimester abortions are a line too far. Certainly, even if you live in denial that you are pregnant for a one or two or three, it still gives another few months to make a decision, and get an abortion before you hit 23 weeks. After Tiller, whose title is derived from the period right after George Tiller, one of just five doctors in America qualified to perform third trimester abortions was murdered, things are not always that cut and dry. In many of the cases presented in After Tiller, the pregnant women seeking an abortion didn’t find out about some horrific birth defects that would result in nothing except a short, pain filled life for their children and decide it would be kinder to their children not to put them through that. If you can judge those women, well, you’re more confident in your beliefs than me. In other cases – where women simply put it off for a long time – are more complicated.
After Tiller follows the four surviving doctors who are qualified to perform third trimester abortions after the murder or George Tiller. They are subject to protests and death threats, and political pressure – as different states try to squeeze them out, or pass new legislature to make what they do illegal. To them, it is the principle of the thing more than anything. Women have the right to choose what they want to do with their unborn children, and who are they to judge? In the case of the women who know choose to end their pregnancies because of birth defects, the scenes showing them struggling with their decisions are heartbreaking. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson never show these women’s faces – just their hands, and their voices as they explain their reasons.
To a certain extent, I think we can question some of these scenes – not because they are not real, but because everyone knows they are on camera during them, so of course, the possibility of them changing what they say, or how they say it, is real. But this is just one part of After Tiller – the direct interviews with the doctors themselves are, I feel, more valuable as they explain their reasons in their own words. It is possible for people on both sides on the abortion debate to watch these interviews, and the film itself, and come up with radically different reactions. I do hope however, that people can watch the film with an open mind.
After Tiller is not the best documentary about abortion – that would be Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (2007) – a long, brilliant documentary that can truly infuriate and challenge anyone’s beliefs on the issue. After Tiller, like 10th and Delaware from a few years ago, is more narrowly focused – concentrating on a few people in the middle of the abortion debate. No matter what your opinion on the issues involved, I think After Tiller is an important documentary to watch, and listen to, and make up your own mind. If you go in with an open mind, you may find yourself challenged and moved by the documentary – even if you don’t change your mind.