“After Tiller” Paints a Complex, Compassionate Portrait of Abortion

by Katie Fustich

Until four years ago, physician Dr. George Tiller was the medical director of Women’s Health Care Services in Wichita, Kansas. While in school, Tiller heard of a woman who died from an illegal abortion, and vowed to use his medical skills to prevent such tragedies from happening. In 2009, Dr. Tiller was assassinated in his church, making him the eighth abortion clinic worker to be killed following the Roe V. Wade decision of 1973.

Now, in the wake of Tiller’s murder, there are only four physicians remaining in the United States who will openly perform third-trimester abortions. The documentary After Tiller, directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, tells the story of these doctors; a story that is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the film, we follow Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson, and Dr. Shelley Sella. All four were friends and colleagues of Dr. Tiller and use his code of ethics and compassion as a reference in their practice on a daily basis. It seems as though Tiller still has a very real presence, and acts as a guiding hand as each individual doctor faces the complications and moral conundrums of their work.

Dr. Carhart, for example, finds himself without a clinic to operate in, after his Nebraska location is forced to close due to a new law preventing abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Even after relocating to Maryland, protestors immediately seek him out. Anti-abortion organizations went so far as to stand outside of the middle school of the daughter of Carhart’s landlord, hoping that her humiliation would lead to Carhart’s eviction. Carhart battles with the fact that though his work saves the lives of women, it  puts others in potential danger.

I found the struggle of Dr. Robinson most compelling. In New Mexico, where her practice is located, law dictates that it is the physician’s final decision as to which cases warrant an abortion in the late stages of pregnancy. This creates a very uncomfortable and difficult scenario in which Robinson feels forced into the role of God, singlehandedly responsible for a verdict that has the potential to radically change a woman’s life. “What if someone just isn’t a good storyteller?” she asks, looking at the pile of handwritten requests sitting on her desk. “Who am I to decide?”

Filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

The stories of the patients are as fascinating as they are difficult to watch. Their situations range from rape to fetal anomalies to financial instability. One particular woman tried to raise the money for her abortion early in the pregnancy, only to get caught in the trap of a price that increases with time elapsed. Another received one of her final ultrasounds only to be told her child had a condition that would lead to the infant’s death only a few days after birth. Clearly, for no woman is this a decision easily made. Yet, during each follow-up appointment, the women seem in a state of calm recovery. They are teary-eyed, but are truly at peace with their decision. Each case speaks to the fact that, though third-trimester abortions account for less than 1% of all abortions, the continued availability of this service is incredibly important.

The best thing about After Tiller is the compassion in the filmmaking itself. What could have so easily been a warranted attack on anti-abortion radicals and a rallying cry for change instead is a very centrist and balanced perspective on a delicate issue. Directors Shane and Wilson let each angle of the issue have its say and ultimately leave it up to the viewer to decide where they find truth.

After Tiller opens today, September 20th in select cities. The film will continue to be screened across the country throughout the fall, so visit the official website for a comprehensive list of cities and dates.


Images via After Tiller press kit

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