On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot to death during a church service in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Tiller was one of only five doctors in the United States who performed abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Now, there are four, and the documentary After Tiller examines their lives and livelihoods in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s death.
These four doctors are regularly harassed by people who proclaim themselves “pro-life,” yet have no qualms about killing – or celebrating those who do the killing – of abortion providers. The film asks them why they choose to put themselves in harm’s way, why they choose to make themselves social pariahs. Over the course of the 85-minute run-time, we learn about how these doctors’ lives have been threatened (death threats are a regular part of their daily life), how their livelihoods are impacted (one doctor was forced to relocate after his state outlawed late-term abortions, and he had an extremely difficult time finding a landlord who would rent to him), and how their personal lives suffer as a result of the trials they endure. That they choose to stand up for their belief that they are providing a needed service and continue their practice in the face of such overwhelming opposition is nothing short of miraculous.
The film uses interviews and footage from consultations with patients to provide a look into the lives of the four doctors. It’s no secret that abortion is a politically charged topic, but many people, including the doctors who perform them, treat late-term abortions as much more serious than abortions conducted at the beginning of a pregnancy. As is detailed in the film, the late-term abortion procedure is fundamentally different from the procedure done earlier in a pregnancy, and the line between “life” and “not life” becomes extremely hazy. But the facts remain that pregnancy is still a function of a woman’s body, and there are numerous reasons why women choose to get abortions, even at such a late stage of the pregnancy. In one of the most emotionally powerful interviews in the film, one of the doctors states that she believes that she is working with babies, not fetuses, but that the physical and mental health of the mother outweighs the viability of the baby.
Because that is why these doctors do what they do: the health of the mother. As the anti-choice crowd so often forgets, the health of the mother, both physical and mental, often hangs in the balance when deciding whether or not to get an abortion. After Tiller’s use of footage from patient consultations proves again and again that abortion is one of the hardest choices women will ever make. The film shows women who are torn apart by the decision. The stigma placed upon the procedure by our society certainly doesn’t help with the decision. These consultation scenes hammer home the importance of the doctors’ work; although the doctors are the subject of the documentary, the most emotionally powerful scenes are the consultations, highlighting why the doctors have made their decisions to continue their work.
After Tiller certainly won’t change any minds about the morality of abortion. But it is a powerful piece of filmmaking, reminding those of us who support a woman’s right to choose why that right is so important, and how fragile that right is. Four doctors in the entire country have the necessary training to perform a procedure that is necessary, if not desired, by some women. And there are many out there working to change that number to zero.