When Dr. George Tiller was assassinated at his Wichita church by a pro-life fanatic in 2009, he became the eighth abortion clinic worker in America to be killed. At the time he was one of the country’s only doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. Tiller continued his work despite fulminations from extremist groups like Operation Rescue and pundits like Bill O’Reilly (who referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer”) and the threats that followed all that overheated rhetoric like a storm. He said at one point, “Everything has a risk to it.” That risk shrouds all the stories told in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s hopeful, quietly optimistic documentary After Tiller; there’s a reason that none of the patients in the film have their faces shown.
Shane and Wilson follow the four doctors who still risk their lives providing third-trimester abortions: LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, and Shelley Sella. All four work now with the daily reality of social ostracism — even many pro-choice Americans prefer not to think about the tiny percentage of abortions done in the third trimester – and the looming threat of having their livelihood criminalized. A large part of the film follows Carhart’s struggle to just keep working, as legal forces and downright bullying push him from his rural Nebraska clinic to Iowa and then Maryland. An ex-military man who had many of his horses burnt alive in a barn by fanatic arsonists, he has a simple response to it all: “You don’t give in to terrorists.”
Not all the pressure comes from the protesters that gather outside their clinics, push increasingly punitive abortion limitations through state legislatures, and call in death threats to the doctors and their families. Robinson and Sella, who work at an Albuquerque clinic, in particular seem weighed down by having to almost act as counselors of last resort to women with nowhere else to turn. Robinson, a bubbly presence with a knack for connecting to her patients, seems particularly dissatisfied with being asked to pass judgment on whether these women should have a procedure that many people would prefer not to think about.
Giving the doctors’ stories extra emotional heft is that they all either worked closely with or knew Tiller. The documentary is in large part about their sense of mission to carry on what they see as medical work whose necessity is too frequently overshadowed by religious extremism. It tracks these men and women with a careful, respectful approach that would seem overly solicitous if they all didn’t appear on screen as such brave, considerate professionals. From Carhart’s stolid determination to Hern’s Old West gruffness, Robinson’s cheerful patter, and Sella’s careful thoughtfulness, each seems like somebody the average person would want to counsel them through a tough medical decision.
Unlike many recent documentaries on abortion, After Tiller doesn’t stretch itself in order to not take a position. Robinson states herself clearly, saying, “Women are the world’s experts on their own lives.” The filmmakers don’t come right out and say that, but their heroic portraiture speaks volumes. As does their impressive desire to not duck the issue. The film lays out the graphic details of late-term abortions, in which the woman actually delivers a stillborn baby. None of the doctors shirk the ugliness of it; one even saying, “It sounds barbaric, doesn’t it?” But they also know that not performing it can’t erase the ugliness that can follow, from children who are unwanted or born into a short life of unbearable misery. Robinson gives one of her patients her options and then levels with her: “They all suck.” In that moment, her candor seems almost as breathtakingly brave as her and her comrades’ daily decision to face assassination.
Like the men and women it follows, doing the work that few others dare, After Tiller takes a stand.