In May 2009, Dr. George Richard Tiller was killed by a bullet to the head while attending Sunday morning mass in Wichita. He was 67. There had been previous assassination attempts, including the firebombing of his medical clinic in 1986 and another shooting in 1993, which he survived. Why was Tiller a target? Because he was one of the few doctors in the country who performed late-term (or third trimester) abortions, a controversial procedure that even the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 left up to individual states to legalize or ban (today, only nine states offer the service).
After Tiller, a documentary about four doctors who worked with Tiller and today carry on his practice, makes no attempt at a fair and balanced argument. Instead, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson use the film to get past the disgust and outrage many people might instinctively feel about the thought of terminating a 25-week-old unborn child and explore the reasons why the procedure is important. The movie takes a calm and intellectual approach to an inflammatory subject, elevating what could have easily come off as propaganda into a reasoned and thoughtful work of journalism.
The filmmakers were granted unlimited access to Tiller’s disciples: The eloquent Dr. Warren Hern, who has been performing abortions in Boulder since the 1970s; Drs. Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, who live in California but take turns commuting to their clinic in Albuquerque; and Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who is forced to relocate his Nebraska practice after the state passes a law restricting late-term abortions.
Through interviews with their patients (the women’s faces are never shown), we learn exactly what the procedure entails: The child must be euthanized inside the womb, then delivered via labor stillborn, in order to protect the patient’s reproductive organs. We are also shown interviews in which the doctors decide whether to carry out the procedure. One woman, whose latest MRI revealed her son is terminally ill and will die within 24 hours of birth, wants to spare the baby unnecessary pain and duress. Another woman, a single mother who already has one child and isn’t sure she can support another, has a harder time getting the medical consent.
Unlike Tony Kaye’s epic 2006 documentary Lake of Fire, which explored the abortion debate from both sides of the fence in a graphic, confrontational manner, After Tiller is careful not to offend or aggravate. This is a measured, riveting picture about a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of all the abortions in the U.S. annually, told from the points of view of the doctors who perform them and the women who must deal with the consequences, often with heavy, broken hearts.
With: LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella.
Producers/directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson.
Screenwriters: Greg O’Toole, Martha Shane, Lana Wilson.
An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Running time: 85 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic descriptions of abortion. Opens Friday Oct. 11 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.