Sundance Film Humanizes Late-Term Abortion Seekers

Logan Buckley, Staff Writer

Too often, the heated debate over abortion policies focuses on ambiguous medical arguments about fetal pain or sweeping declarations about morality that ignore the stories of women and other female-bodied individuals who choose to have abortions. In an effort to combat this, Students United for Reproductive Freedom and the Oberlin College Democrats screened the documentary After Tiller in Dye Lecture Hall on the night of Feb. 13. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary, a 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection, works to redress imbalance in the public conversation about abortion with a powerful, tragic and moving look at the doctors who perform late-term abortions and the people who undergo them.

The film’s title refers to George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions in Kansas and was murdered by an anti-abortion activist while attending church in 2009. Since his death, there are now only four doctors in the United States who perform the controversial late-term abortion, most of whom are former colleagues of Dr. Tiller. Over the course of the documentary, the four doctors — LeRoy Carhart, Shelley Sella, Susan Robinson and Warren Hern — describe the realities of their day-to-day practice and their reasons for continuing to provide late-term abortions in the face of so much controversy and hate.

Central among their reasons for persevering is the conviction that each woman knows better than anyone else what is right for her. One doctor met Tiller at a conference where Tiller said in a speech that “the woman’s body is smarter than the doctor.” She recognized that this idea came from a midwifery perspective, having started in midwifery herself; when she told Tiller as much, he hired her almost immediately.

The film shows the process that another doctor, Susan Robinson, goes through as she evaluates patients who are requesting abortions. Though she is not required to perform abortions when she feels the procedure is the wrong choice, she emphasizes throughout the process that she will defer to the patient whenever possible. Regarding women who have trouble articulating their reasons for wanting an abortion or whose stories are not as compelling, she says, “Is that ok for me to say, ‘That’s not a good enough story, I’m not doing an abortion for you’?” According to Robinson, such an approach would be presumptuous and disrespectful of the woman’s agency; while there are occasionally patients whom she decides the clinic cannot help, she strives to respect the patients’ ability to make such an important life decision for themselves.

Though the filmmakers spend most of the documentary following the four doctors, it is at its most compelling when the patients speak for themselves about why they are considering or have chosen abortion. Late-term abortion in particular seems to be widely misunderstood and it is invaluable for audiences to understand why women choose to undergo the procedure — whether their reasons involve fetal defects, sexual assault, difficulties in getting an abortion earlier in the pregnancy or any of a multitude of other personal reasons. A viewer of the film may agree or disagree with individual women about their choices, but it is impossible to walk away thinking that any of the women have made their decisions lightly. This context, while probably not surprising to those who support a woman’s right to choose, represents an invaluable contribution to the debates surrounding abortion in general and late-term abortion in particular.

Documentaries sometimes place blinders on their viewers, forcing opinions rather than presenting situations and allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions. By necessity, the film only follows doctors who care enough about the importance of late-term abortions to put themselves and their families at risk and regrettably little time is spent characterizing opponents of abortion. But for the most part, the film resists binaries and doesn’t shy away from portraying the most controversial sides of the issue — the difficult questions that inevitably come up in these doctor’s offices. For that honest approach, plus the value of hearing from women about why they are choosing to get abortions, After Tiller is a must-see.