After Tiller is a competently-made and engaging documentary about four doctors who perform third trimester abortions. Hard topic to discuss or write about, because really there just is no winning with this subject. You can be pro-choice and still wonder why abortions of this type need to occur; and if you’re pro-life, well you’re probably already dug in with the opinion of why any type needs to occur period. Fact is though, third trimester abortions are less than 1% of all abortions done in the U.S., and there are only four current doctors who do them: Dr. LeRoy Carhart in Nebraska, Dr. Warren Hern in Boulder, CO, and Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella in Albuquerque. They were all either friends or proteges of the late Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was shot in a Kansas church in 2009.
The film tackles all the hard subjects, like those who are opposed to the doctors’ very existence, usually on religious grounds, and the lengths they will go to try to prevent the work from going on, from straight protesting outside the clinics to more intimidating tactics. Also the reasons why women have these abortions; and the reasons are varied, from health or quality of life of the baby, to rape, to financial reasons. Additionally, the doctors themselves are covered: who they are, what they aspired to in med school and why they ended up doing what they do.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart, like his friend, Dr. Tiller, was ex-military and when Tiller was murdered, Carhart’s only desire was to continue what he called “the mission” of helping women out when they required his services. Carhart practiced in Bellevue, NE, but when that state changed its abortion laws to preclude anything after 20 weeks (third trimesters typically start at 25 weeks), he had to shop around until he settled in Maryland. Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella, who both live in California, alternate weeks at a clinic in Albuquerque. Dr. Sella came from a midwifery background and later starting providing abortions services in California.
Dr. Warren Hern practices in Boulder, CO and loved delivering babies in medical school. He was a Peace Corps physician in Brazil who saw twice as many women recovering from illegal abortions as women recovering from normal childbirth. He also stated that when he worked pediatrics, he saw unwanted babies, sometimes given life altering injuries from parents who didn’t want them. He received harassment from anti-abortion protesters, one of whom shot into his office one day in 1988. That was the year he said his first marriage ended, much to his dismay.
The documentary allows the audience to sit in on numerous consultations with women who have various reasons for having their abortions at such a late stage. One woman was raped and was in denial about her situation for months. One couple’s child has athrogryposis, which is a congenital disease affecting movement in the joints. Another couple’s baby has part of his brain missing. Another had a terminal form of encephalopathy. And one woman simply couldn’t financially sustain another child and had to wait for a tax return to be able to afford to travel to the nearest clinic. So the reasons are many and varied.
The documentary is straightforward, relying mostly on the patients’ testimonies and those of the doctors, recounting their backgrounds, procedures and experiences, alternating between the four. But it’s also openly biased for the doctors, as it doesn’t offer any rebuttal from the pro-life side aside from news clips of them blocking and protesting the clinics, marching against new planned clinics, especially when Dr. Carhart is looking to open one in Maryland. It also explores some of the underhanded tactics the opposition use, such as targeting the landlord of Dr. Carhart’s new clinic, Todd Stave, by protesting at the middle school of his daughter. One key thing that you’ll notice is that none of the doctors are younger than 50 – Carhart and Hern are both in their 70s – and they’re the last of their kind, although Sella and Robinson are reportedly training a third doctor in their techniques. Sella is also a lesbian, which I’m sure only doubles her appeal to religious and radical anti-abortionists.
After Tiller paints some sympathetic pictures of these practitioners of a controversial at best and absolutely loathed at worst medical procedure. It outlines what they have gone and have to still go through. The only people who seem to appreciate them at all are their family, and most importantly, their patients.
After Tiller opens in New York on September 20 and in L.A. on October 4. And in Red States probably never.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars