Just four doctors in the United States practice late term abortions. Every time they go to work, walk out of their front doors or attend church, the threat of death goes with them. And, on Friday afternoon, at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of After Tiller—a documentary about their murdered colleague Dr. George Tiller—all four of these doctors were gathered together in one, small Park City theater.
Competing in the festival's U.S. documentary competition, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller takes an intimate look at these four American doctors—Leroy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella—who perform late-term abortions, drawing attention to the heartache of their patients and the struggles of their staffs amid the politically charged issue of female reproductive rights.
“The day Dr. Tiller was murdered, there was no other thought in my head but to carry on,” Carhart said in the film, despite an arson fire at his stable years before that killed 21 horses.
Amid tight security—armed police officers and a strict audience-wide check for weapons—these doctors, who have received death threats, seen property destroyed and vandalized and have been kept by city councils from leasing space for their practices, sat with the filmmakers in the Temple Theater.
Dr. Warren Hern talks with a patient. Photo: Yes and No Productions.
Named for Tiller, who was gunned down and killed in 2009, filmmakers Shane and Wilson spent nearly three years on the project with the goal of bringing clarity to an issue that is often seen as simply right or wrong in the eyes of the American public and through the mainstream media.
“We don't feel this film is forcing anyone to think any one way,” Wilson said during the Q&A panel after the premiere. “There are circumstances people may have never considered before. It's not the black and white you see in the news, but a vast grey area.”
Protestors are a presence throughout the film, but Shane and Wilson smartly keep them in the background and avoided portraying them as angry religious zealots—a touchpoint for potential criticism for presenting the film as pro-choice propaganda. Rarely are the protestors given center stage, except when, after a change in Nebraska law, Carhart tries to move his practice to Maryland.
After Tiller directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson. Photo:Joshua Luxenberg.
Despite the threats, all four doctors are dedicated to their work (Robinson and Sella are now training another doctor on third trimester abortions) and see it as an important choice for their patients, many of whom have been victims of horrific rapes or have found the children they're carrying have severe fetal abnormalities, as seen in the film.
One mother, a woman named Monica, sobbed in Robinson's office after making the decision to abort at 20+ weeks because her baby—Hudson—had a rare condition where his bones were shattering within her womb. “We knew, either way, it would be a tragic story for him,” she said. “It didn't seem fair to him [to have him live that life.]”
Stories like Monica's, Robinson noted in the film, offer one of the biggest emotional hurdles. “I hear such sad things and it brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “The only time they get to say hello to their baby, they also have to say goodbye. That's the one thing that makes this work so trying.”
Abortions after the 20th week often require the woman go through a labor and deliver in stillbirth, something counselors and doctors at the clinics make sure the women understand early on. “What's hard about third trimester abortion is that the woman delivers a baby, a stillborn,” Sella said. “I struggle because I think of them as babies. I don't think of them as [fetuses].”
According to the film, late-term abortions—after the 21stweek—account for less than 1 percent of all abortions in the United States. Yet, it's a battleground issue the filmmakers—both born afterRoe v. Wade—tried to approach in a way that presented new ideas and ways of looking at late abortions. “It seemed people were alienated from the topic of abortion because it was so polarizing,” Shane said during theQ&A. “We wanted to make it something that looked at the complexity of the issue.”
Jan. 22, noon, Sundance Resort Screening Room
Jan. 23, 8:30 p.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City