“Nobody fucking wants an abortion.”
Martha Lane and Lana Wilson’s documentary After Tiller focuses entirely on third-trimester abortions, those undertaken after the twenty first week of pregnancy, or more specifically the doctors (there are only four) who offer these late period abortions and the toll such a procedure has on them. For a look at the whole spectrum of the abortion debate, go to Tony Kayes expansive, balanced and troubling 2006 documentary Lakes of Fire (yes, he did something after American History X, something much better,) as After Tiller isn’t trying to offer that. After Tiller is much more personal and specific, though no less informative and challenging.
Despite opening with a bombastic post-Michael Moore style introduction, all flashing news footage and headline chatter, After Tiller quickly and thankfully gives way for a much more low key, intimate approach to documentary filmmaking. Sympathetic, quiet and nuanced, After Tiller makes strides to empathise with the practitioners of late abortions, without strictly endorsing the procedure. The title refers to George Tiller, a leading doctor who also conducted third trimester abortions before he was shot by anti-abortion protesters whilst at church in 2009. After Tiller explores what it is like to live and work in fear in a period where ‘after Tiller,’ there is no limit to the severity of reprimand these practitioners can expect to face from fundamentalist ‘lifers.’ As Lane and Wilson make it painfully clear, the concern for safety comes on top of the already morally taxing nature of the work of an abortionist.
“I can’t retire, there aren’t enough of us,” says one of the remaining four that are qualified and willing to undertake late abortions. Nobody wants to be in the position where such a late abortion is necessary, least of all the practitioner, but the four brave individuals in this documentary feel their sacrifice is womanhood’s salvation, though these humble few would never put their struggle in such grandiose terms. The practise of the third trimester abortion, legal as it is in some, (an ever decreasing number), of the states in America, adds another layer of complexity and contention in an already scientifically and morally ambiguous issue. Lane and Wilson go someway to show the balance of the issue, showing footage of a mother and her child, healthy now and born at 27 weeks, as contrast to harrowing over the shoulder footage of interviews between abortionist and troubled mothers, some with unborn children with foetal abnormalities, and others who just don’t feel it right to bring a child into their world. In this conversations, guilt and hurt is palpable in the tremors of the voices of both sides, doctor and patient.
If it wasn’t clear already, After Tiller is hard going. “It sounds barbaric, doesn’t it,” says one of the practioners during one the most affecting accounts in the film, explaining clearly that unlike early abortion, her work is not an operation, but a delivery. That she is well aware she delivers babies, not foetuses, but that sometimes this really does need to be done. The emotional damage is inflicted not just to the mother who has the child removed, but to the doctor who has to remove it, and constantly debate internally over whether they should be doing so at all. Conducting an abortion is a real burden, a weight that stays after office hours, and it is easy to forget this. After Tiller, with its intimate look at people, rather than issues does well to evoke this. The point is clear enough though, without the constant, strained piano accompaniment. The sadness is a tone established by the human side, manipulation is not needed.
There are lots of tears, and lots of hugs in After Tiller, and while it could do with a little balance and a little less emotional manipulation, in illuminating and voicing the side of a battle that news footage tends to avoid, the non-hysterical, the levelled and conflicted, it has a definite value. After Tiller serves to humanises these practitioners. They are not devils in doctors clothes, as much as their opponents may attempt to paint them as such. It should be added that they are not necessarily saints either, an accusation this documentary could be accused of drawing them as. It would be thought that this doc could serve to show that to those who demonize them so emphatically. Considering that both the subjects and filmmakers were the subject of a recent attack, it looks like it hasn’t entirely succeeded.