Demons. Evil. Heartless. Greedy. Murderers. These are just some of the many adjectives used by pro-lifers to describe doctors who give abortions. Abortion is such a red button issue that you are either pro-life or pro-choice. There is no middle ground. Religious groups argue that it is a sin against God while others feel that it is the right of a woman to choose if she should carry her baby to term. On occasion there are individual(s) and/or groups that feel justified in the use of violence to support their religious doctrine. It’s an eye for an eye and as the proverb says it will leave two people blind. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s powerful documentary After Tiller opens eyes and brings light to the emotional turmoil that the patient and doctor go through when dealing with such a painful part of life.
Third-trimester abortions are seldom heard of. About 1% of all administered abortions are third-term. Only a handful of doctors in the country actually do legal third-trimester abortions. In May of 2009 in Kansas, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in church. Yes, in a church. A gunman came in and shot him in the name of God in the house of God. Many celebrated while others could only shake their heads in disbelief. Undeterred the four remaining doctors continue onward. Despite the constant encounters with protestors outside their offices, the changes in state law, the forced relocations and constant threats these doctors continue to provide this service. Over the course of the film’s running time we learn why they continue and by the end have a full understanding of how and when this operation is justified.
Shane and Wilson really make an effort to show why someone would seek an abortion this late in their pregnancy. Many states have adopted a ban on third-trimester abortions unless the health of the mother is in jeopardy. This has forced many woman to go out of there way to see these doctors. When we do hear from some of these women it is utterly heartbreaking to hear their stories. Many of the women the documentary focus upon a carrying a fetus that will very likely have a short life expectancy or next to no quality of life. The mothers and fathers who spoke talk about how they simply cannot bear the thought of putting their child through that pain so would much rather let them go now. If you know a fetus is going to have a significant medical abnormality can one truly argue with the parents’ rational? Clearly this is a decision not being taken lightly. The doctor’s do not take it lightly either. They must serve as counselor, psychologist, and physician to these broken women. A good portion of the film goes into the lengths that they screen perspective patients. Not only must they be a physician but they must be able to read a person. In one instance Dr. Robinson and an assistant are going back and forth over whether to treat a sixteen year old girl.
Not to be forgotten are the doctors. Shane and Wilson also look at the emotional toll that providing this service has taken upon the physicians. Dr. Hern describes how his barn was burned down by extremists. By a stroke of luck they didn’t end up killing his daughter in the process. Hern also talks with his elderly mother about his line of work and what people think of it. Further still we see how emotional it can become when having to come to terms with the line of work they are doing. In a touching scene Dr. Sella describes how hard it is to perform when she knows she is aborting a fetus but when she sees it she knows it’s a baby, it’s not just tissue. These doctors have to deal with this on a daily basis and still aim to provide the best possible care for their patients who are experiencing one of the most trying moments in their lives.
We fear most what we don’t understand. After Tiller seeks to provide understanding to an incredibly divisive issue. You will see that these doctors are doing their best to hold up their oath to treat their patients with compassion and understanding. During a follow up one patient describes the staff as the most loving, compassionate and supportive she could ever imagine and that the protestors outside really have no concept of this because they haven’t lived in her shoes. It would have been interesting if Shane and Wilson could have provided a pro-life perspective but actions speak louder than words and they had their voice and made their choice. Regardless of where you are on the fence this is a thought-provoking, emotional and even life affirming look at a truly sensitive subject.