A long overdue foray into the hugely controversial debate on late-term abortion in the Unites States, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller (2013) focuses upon the four remaining doctors willing to carry out the procedure. Following the assassination of their colleague Dr. George Tiller in 2009 at the hands of an anti-abortion activist, this quartet of compassionate practitioners vowed to continue their chosen profession despite the constant threat of reprisal from Christian hardliners. It’s tough to watch a times, but only the most fervent of pro-life campaigners would deny the care and support these doctors offer their patients.
LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella all worked under the tutelage of the late Tiller, an ardent believer that women should be given the choice over whether to mother a child right up until the end of the third-trimester (weeks 29-40) of pregnancy. Demonised for his own personal standpoint, Tiller was shot during a Sunday morning service at his local church and was quickly made into a pariah by those opposing late-term abortions. Undeterred and still operating in the remaining nine states in which the divisive procedure is still legal (including Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico), Carhart, Hern, Robinson and Sella struggle on to help those women for whom child birth is not an option.
After Tiller is undoubtedly at its most compelling when stripped down to doctor-patient level. The majority of the testimonies from those individuals wishing to be considered for the third-trimester process – some the victims of rape, others pregnant with a foetus which has developed a debilitating defect – are truly heartbreaking, and it’s here where the case for late-term termination is best appreciated. And yet, whilst the four featured doctors are given a great deal of time to express their own personal inner-conflict to camera, disappointingly little of the film is spent fully exploring the complex counter-argument. The other camp is largely reduced to anonymous hardcore pro-lifers, with little to no thought for those currently against such last-minute intervention who may themselves be wavering on the fence.
Such binary oppositions certainly make for compulsive viewing, but despite its many qualities, Shane and Wilson’s After Tiller still feels as though it’s only ever interested in listening to one side of the argument. What is reassuring, however, is that sensitively crafted documentaries such as this are beginning to open the floodgates to further discourse on one of America’s most hotly-contested contemporary issues. Tiller’s murder at the hands of the mentally disturbed Scott Roeder was a wake-up call for those who consider late-term abortion a morally viable and socially necessary option for those at the end of their tether. Here’s hoping that films such as After Tiller will, over time, have a similar yet far less costly effect.