Film Review: After Tiller

Empathetic, intimate look inside late-term abortion clinics that focuses on the experiences of doctors and their patients.

Who are the doctors who perform abortions? And what kind of patients do they get—really? After Tiller is a documentary about doctors who perform late-term abortions, and, as such, it will call up one’s beliefs about the divisive subject. But it speaks to the strength of this film that audiences on all points of the pro-life and pro-choice spectrum will likely find themselves empathizing with the people onscreen. The viewing process may challenge their beliefs and imbue them with layers of complexity. Perhaps the most surprising—yet also completely obvious—finding is that the doctors themselves continue to struggle with the moral and ethical vagaries of their work.

In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated as he greeted members of his church before a service. The Kansas-based abortion practitioner had already survived one shooting, as well as the firebombing of his clinic. With Tiller dead, few providers of late-term abortions remain, most of them greying, in mid to late career. The current generation of doctors is often not trained in how to carry out these more complicated procedures, nor have they personally seen the aftermath of a botched illegal abortion. Few are interested in entering such a contested field, and even if they did, there are few states that do not restrict the procedures these doctors carry out.

After Tiller focuses on four known doctors who offer late-term procedures, humanizing those who work in an area of medicine filled with secrecy and polarizing views. We see the doctors counseling patients before and after the procedure, and hear their stories in on-camera interviews. Sometimes the camera roams around the office, observing their surroundings. We hear staff answer phone calls, using compassionate but precise medial language to outline procedures. In the background, bulletin boards show mug shots, FBI business cards, and notes about how to handle threatening calls.

Many have seen people testifying about their experiences using abortion services, or read accounts of procedures on the Internet, but it means something different to see the inside of a doctor’s office. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson are able to film remarkably intimate, personal scenes. They shoot the women from discreet angles, showing their fingers nervously folding damp tissues, hands draped over their swollen bellies. In interviews, the filmmakers have said that they gained such access because as young women, patients perceived them as nonthreatening. In counseling before and after procedures, many of the women talk about discovering their babies have fatal genetic conditions or would lead difficult, painful lives. For others, denial led to them seeking an abortion at such a late state. One has been raped, a fact she couldn’t face for months. Another, a Catholic, pro-life teen, took five months to face reality, and another month before she could work up the courage to tell her mom. Then there is a woman with two children who needed time to raise the funds for an abortion, only to discover the fees kept going up the longer she waited.

Certainly the stories of these women matter, but they’re not the crux of the film. As one doctor says, her job is to give women safe abortions, not dole them out to the people who are the best storytellers. After Tiller does not try to be a “problem” film, and bog down the audience with graphs or statistics. When it references political issues, they are only to relate to the doctors’ ability to do their job. How one has to fly in to work during the week. How another doctor moves to another state after restrictive legislation passes. What the protestors outside the clinics look like and sound like. The directors capture all of this, filming not from a place of dispassion, but compassion. The doctors’ sensitive demeanor, their dedication to their work, and their grateful patients serve as an antidote to the charged nature of abortion debates. Powerful and moving, After Tiller is a must-see for those who seek an informed opinion about late-term abortion.