Five stars for filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson for their new documentary “After Tiller,” released commercially in late September. It makes the most compassionate, heart-wrenching, behind-the-headlines case for why women need third-trimester abortions and the four doctors in the U.S. who currently provide them.
But the film ultimately goes beyond its immediate premise to reveal why women need abortions in the first place: why access to abortion is a vital, necessary component in women’s overall health care. Because of that, this powerful, persuasive film deserves to have the widest possible showing – in movie theaters, on TV and cable, in high school and college classrooms.
The film’s title refers to Dr. George Tiller, who courageously and defiantly continued to provide abortions after 24 weeks even though his clinic was firebombed in 1986 and he was shot in both arms in 1993. He was assassinated on Sunday, May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher in his church in Wichita, Kan. The anti-abortion fanatic who pulled the trigger is now serving a life sentence.
That tragedy so motivated four doctors, who worked with or were close friends with Dr. Tiller, to pick up the torch he held with the words “Trust women.” The man is a bona fide hero – and an unfortunate martyr — in the ongoing struggle for reproductive justice.
Each of the current doctors, whom the movie eloquently profiles, is equally inspiring as you see them risking their lives on the job and seeking sanctuary and support in their personal lives. Dr. Shelley Sella was trained as a midwife, then by Dr. Tiller and now works in Albuquerque, N.M. You see her walking in her California neighborhood with her lesbian partner, who supports her but worries about her safety. The husband of Dr. Susan Robinson, who also worked with Dr. Tiller and alternates weeks in Albuquerque with Dr. Sella, shares his worries about her as they prepare a meal together.
Dr. Warren Hern, who practices in Boulder, Colo., discloses how anti-abortion violence destroyed his first marriage, but he shoulders on with the support of his mother. Happily, later in the movie, you see him in a new marriage that makes him a proud stepfather.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who practiced for years in Bellevue, Neb., until a state law banned abortions after 20 weeks, relocates to Germantown, Md. There’s a picture of him with Dr. Tiller, their arms around each other’s shoulders, as Dr. Carhart explains that because they were both trained in the military, their philosophy was “We must complete the mission.” Seated next to his spouse, Mary, Dr. Carhart says, in a soft but firm voice, that he could not continue without the daily support of his childhood sweetheart. Mary’s shy, proud smile says it all.
While these dedicated, daring doctors defy the hatred and violence of anti-abortion terrorists to care for their patients, the stories of the women grab your heart and make you weep. One couple that Dr. Sella patiently and tenderly counsels were born-again Christians discussing a wanted pregnancy (you hear only their voices). There is anguish as the woman explains that she knows “abortion is wrong” and she feels terribly guilty, but she has no choice because her son would be born without a brain.
Dr. Robinson explains why she refuses to take a patient from France who is 28 weeks pregnant – because she does not feel she could do the procedure safely. Yet when a clinic counselor shares her worries that a 16-year-old in deep denial about her pregnancy, who is from a devote Catholic family, is not a good candidate, Dr. Robinson decides to go ahead after carefully questioning the young woman to make absolutely sure she wants to proceed. Along the way, she admits, “Nobody wants to have an abortion.”
Dr. Hern counsels a patient after an abortion that she is duty bound to report the man who violently raped her, lest he do it again. After she agrees, he gives her a big, reassuring hug. In fact, there are lots of loving hugs in this movie, as doctors support patients who make hard decisions after sonograms and tests reveal life-threatening abnormalities.
All these doctors are honest-and-true, real-life, 3-D heroes, but so are their patients who agreed to let their stories be told. And so are filmmakers Shane and Wilson, who had the vision and the courage to explore the modern-day, homegrown terrorism that stalks these health-care providers and their patients every day.
I have never before experienced, since I became an activist in the women’s liberation movement in 1970, such a profoundly moving, articulate, compassionate exploration of what the right to choose abortion truly means. Having to abort a wanted pregnancy is so much harder than aborting an unexpected one, though that is not easy for many. It wasn’t for me. Yet, this movie directly confronts why the 1 percent of procedures takes place in the third trimester and what supporting women and upholding their right to life really means in that context.
If I had a fairy godmother, I would ask her to stage mandatory screenings of “After Tiller” in giant auditoriums behind locked doors for all the politicians in Congress and in the state legislatures and for all the anti-abortion folks who picket clinics and all the women who exercise their legal right to abortion. After that they would all have to talk in a respectful manner one on one about what a right means in a democracy and why it is not fair or just to impose personal or religious beliefs or class, racial, and gender biases on another human being. And no one could leave until they wholeheartedly agreed that human rights must include the comprehensive constellation of rights neatly summarized in the term “reproductive justice.”
OK, so I’m dreaming. But a girl’s gotta dream. Someday that will happen. And filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have brought that day closer with “After Tiller.” (aftertillermovie.com)
See this movie!