Abortion documentary’s testimonies and tales terminate bias

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George Tiller was one of the few doctors to provide third-trimester abortions — procedures that occur after the 25th week of pregnancy — which comprise only 1 percent of all abortions. Within his community of Wichita, Kan., Tiller received many death threats throughout his career and was often a victim of violent attacks from those who found his practice evil and malicious.

On May 31, 2009, Tiller was assassinated by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. With the death of Tiller, only four doctors in the United States practice third-trimester abortions.  The lives of these men and women and the issue of late-term abortion in general are analyzed in the well-crafted, informative documentary “After Tiller.”

Most would expect the film to provide a pro-abortion rights agenda with the intention of reshaping the viewer’s beliefs on abortion issues as the directors and producers saw fit. It is impressive, however, that this documentary avoids pushing a pro-choice agenda. Instead, it simply presents the facts.

“What we were trying to do with the film was really to refocus the debate over abortion and go into the real lives of the doctors and patients who are working and making these really difficult decisions (going) away from these abstract debates of abortion,” says Martha Shane, one of the two directors, in a phone interview with The Daily Californian.

The refocusing brings a fresh angle to the debate surrounding abortion and holds the viewer’s interest throughout the film by diving into the real lives of the doctors and patients who no longer see the issue as a “political playing piece,” in the words of Martha Shane, but instead as a difficult life decision. The structure of the documentary follows the four doctors who provide this treatment: LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson.  Most of the scenes fall into the typical documentary film pattern of following the doctors as they each work in their separate clinics and go about their daily professional lives — such as bringing in patients, talking to women about which procedures need to be done, listening to the stories of the patients and then actually going through with the procedures.

From confessionals to well-recorded scenes of the doctors struggling to balance work and their personal lives — which are dangerously linked — the crew shows us what it is like to be a doctor living under such extreme circumstances. It is not the role of the doctors, however, that makes the documentary so compelling. It is the presence of the many patients that gives this documentary its flavor and grace.

“These weren’t just women that were waiting around to finally come to this casual decision …” said Lana Wilson, the other director of the film. “Sometimes they are rape victims or don’t know they’re pregnant until later, and some are young women … Nobody just comes to the end of a pregnancy thinking they will get an abortion. People think they are casual decisions, but the women in these situations go through a well-thought-out process to come to this decision.”

Since the making of this film, a series of abortion restrictions have been passed in the United States, and abortion continues to be a controversial topic. But “After Tiller” is not about the politics of abortion.

“After Tiller” is thought-provoking because it takes the viewer into the lives of the doctors and patients who don’t simply see abortion as a polarizing issue but undergo the emotional and — especially for the patients — financial stress. Late-term abortion is more than just the simple euthanasia of an unborn fetus: It is all of the emotional stress that predates the procedure — and the immense amount of grieving that occurs afterwards.

Contact Evan Carr at [email protected].