AFTER TILLER (2013)
Running Time: 85 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson
Distributor: Oscilloscope Labs
“Nobody wants a [expletive] abortion,” states one of the four principal characters in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary AFTER TILLER. This comment would be unsurprising had it come from one of the thousands of protesters who periodically line up in one state or another demanding that abortion be made either illegal or at least banned after twenty or twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. But the speaker, Dr. Susan Robinson, is one of the only four doctors in the entire United States to perform abortion procedures on patients who have been carrying fetuses for over twenty-four weeks. Such patients are said opt for late-term abortions, illegal even in generally liberal New York State (unless the health of the mother is compromised). While some of us may have thought that New York would be among the few states to allow abortions after twenty-four months, a time that the fetus is allegedly able to feel pain, what is surprising is that nine other states including Maryland are on board with legislation to protect physicians who operate on latecomers.
AFTER TILLER is a conventionally structured doc that may come across to some as balanced but in fact Shane and Wilson tilt the politics leftward in favor of a more liberal use of abortion procedures. The directors, who wrote the script together with Greg O’Toole, spend much of the film’s time showing the doctors in a sympathetic light, interviewing patients who come to them—some in tears and shaking, others resolute—as though the physicians have all the time in the world to play therapist and lend an empathetic ear. At no time do any of the four doctors, who along with Susan Robinson include LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern and Shelly Sella, put pressure on the patients, all to ensure that none will return a month, a year, or any time thereafter full of misgivings. In fact as one doctor states, not a single patient ever entertained serious regrets about the decision to abort.
The patients’ faces are either blurred out or not shown at all, which in a way is unfortunate in that it makes them look like people about to leave their chairs to do a perp walk. But they have good reason to be cautious: Dr. Tiller, the deceased title character who is shown in a file film, was murdered a few years ago by an anti-abortion fanatic, the killer, Scott Roeder, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment—an excellent judgment, even one that is surprising considering the depth of hatred that some Americans have over even first trimester abortions.
While governors and legislators in some mid-Western states are falling over themselves to pander to their constituents who are perceived by them to be largely anti-abortion, we are treated to the four sane professionals who are literally risking their lives, given what happened to Dr. George Tiller. Susan Robinson is a sweet, grandmotherly type, the rare breed of physician who is easy to talk to and allows her patients to express misgivings, if necessary, as long as they need to be assured. Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had once worked with Tiller, was forced to relocate when a hostile legislature determined that a fetus feels pain at twenty-four weeks (probably untrue) and banned the procedure. Warren Hern, who at seventy-four is determined to spend more time with his family, is not ready to give up a practice that he considers life-affirming, given the numbers of mostly poor women or perhaps ignorant teens who would otherwise injure themselves severely or even die by trying to abort their fetuses with hangers.
Dr. Robinson does not allow herself to treat patients whose “stories” she does not believe in. That would presumably encompass one woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy because she needs time to do her taxes. Another woman is a rape victim, which makes one wonder why such a person would wait past twenty-four weeks rather than, perhaps, take the so-called French pill now available for women who have had unprotected sex.
AFTER TILLER is the voice of reason, at least to me, a film that demonstrates that “nobody wants a [expletive] abortion” but which some people, whether because of rape or a diagnosis that a fetus may never walk or talk and would probably die before age four, is compelled to end late-term pregnancies safely in the hands of experienced professionals. As such, the documentary, which happily has a PG-13 rating and is therefore open for viewing by vulnerable teens, is a welcome, non-sensational call for the American people to give up extremist views and have sympathy for both the patients and for the few who provide services to them that 99.99% of ob-gyn docs will not or cannot legally perform.
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