Since its debut on September 20, the documentary After Tiller has captivated audiences and sparked thought-provoking discussions about later abortions and the physicians who provide them. The film has been screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and in 25 cities across the globe, but it has likely never been more highly anticipated than it was at its November 20 debut in Wichita, Kansas, the city that Dr. George Tiller called home.
There are many reasons why After Tiller is a must-see film. The feminist and reproductive health communities have provided much commentary about it since its release. But even more important are the perspectives of people outside these communities, for whom the film may provide an introduction to the myriad reasons why women seek abortions later in their pregnancies.
In Wichita, the film was shown to a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre. There were metal detectors at the door and security was ever-present, but the crowd appeared to be largely pro-choice and there were no disruptions of any kind. The film was followed by a panel discussion, featuring the movie’s co-producers and directors—Martha Shane and Lana Wilson—along with Julie Burkhart from the South Wind Women’s Center, which is housed in the facility where Dr. Tiller practiced, and Scott Stringfield, the medical director from Choices, the crisis pregnancy center located next door to South Wind.
The post-movie discussion was polite, with members of the audience seeming to go out of their way to respect the dissenting opinion found among them. People in attendance included Dr. Tiller’s patients, neighbors, staff, and fellow parishioners from his church, including the man who was with him when he was shot and with whom his last words were spoken. For this audience, viewing After Tiller provided something even more than philosophical and moral musings about a complex subject matter. It provided yet another step toward healing for this community so intimately aligned with the film’s namesake, their doctor, their hero, and their friend.
Before the event, RH Reality Check spoke by phone with one of the film’s co-directors and co-producers, Martha Shane, about the film and what it meant to host a screening in the city where Dr. Tiller practiced, and where he was killed by anti-choice terrorist Scott Roeder in 2009.
RH Reality Check: Does showing this movie in Wichita hold a special or particular significance for you? What do you hope the effect of showing this movie in Wichita will be?
Martha Shane: I think we always have felt that it would be important to show the film in Wichita. Dr. Shelley Sella [one of the four remaining providers in the nation who openly provide third-trimester abortions since Tiller's death] talks in the film about the climate of hatred existing in Wichita, that she felt it contributed to Dr. Tiller
being murdered. As filmmakers, I don’t think we hold a particular goal for what we’re trying to achieve there, but I do imagine it will be an emotional screening. I feel that it is important that we share the film with the people who knew Dr. Tiller so well.
RHRC: People in the pro-choice movement revere their abortion providers, particularly those physicians providing later procedures. Here in Wichita, Dr. Tiller was certainly viewed as a hero to the women he helped, to the pro-choice community here, and to those who knew and loved him as a person. After spending so much time with these doctors, do you personally view them as heroes?
MS: It’s complicated. That’s not how I talk about it in the film. The question we asked the doctors when we interviewed them was, “What gives you the courage to continue doing this work?” They would say that it isn’t about courage, that it’s about stubbornness. I think that there is definitely a sense of courage in these doctors who provide this service to women.
You know, both Lana [Wilson, the film's co-director] and I knew that we were pro-choice when we set out to make this film, but we didn’t know much about third-trimester procedures, so that has been a learning experience for us. It was interesting to us that one of our film editors said that while he was working on this project, he would try to distinguish his personal moral line with these abortions, and he said every time he thought he found the line, he then heard from a woman in the footage that would make him truly reconsider. I was personally floored by the desperation of the women we encountered while making the film.
RHRC: What of the criticism that this is not a “balanced” documentary? You said in an interview on GRITtv that you determined there’s already been enough coverage of the anti-abortion rhetoric. You said that you chose consciously to focus on the women and the “gray area” found even within the clinic. Tell me more about this gray area. What effect does highlighting this area have on the movie, and what effect could it have in the way we talk about abortion?
MS: We observed that the news media in their coverage of abortion only focuses on people who are on one side or another, but the vast majority of people are in the middle ground when it comes to this issue. The film shows the doctors themselves struggling with the complexity of their work. So the question becomes: How do we decide to provide these later abortions for these women? What moral calculus should be used? The film allows its viewers to wrestle with these issues for themselves. We hope that by embracing the complexity that we can change the way that abortion is spoken about in public.
RHRC: In Kansas, the threat to abortion comes not only from violent assassins, but also from our anti-choice, extremist legislature. Does the political element of abortion enter into the film at all?
MS: Our film follows Dr. [LeRoy] Carhart through the 20-week abortion ban in Nebraska. When we approached him about the film, he said that he had been trying for years to get legislators to come to the clinic to hear these women’s stories, but they would never come. I think it was a large reason why he chose to participate in the film. While none of these doctors chose their work for political reasons, it has become an inescapable reality for them.
RHRC: While you are here, you are scheduled to be at a fundraiser for the South Wind Women’s Center. This clinic doesn’t perform the later
procedures that are featured in your film. Do the stories of the women who have non-medically necessary first- and second-trimester abortions contribute something to the discussion? What happens when there is no “gray area” and it is simply a matter of choice? Does this “gray area” allow for women who simply feel unable to proceed with a pregnancy due to a personal choice and their individual personal circumstance?
MS: I try to talk about the complexity of the issue. These women who seek first- and second-trimester abortions contribute so much to the discussion, considering one in three women have an abortion in their lifetime. The complexity is seen in every woman’s decision to have an abortion. It is a decision that each of them thinks through deeply. I think this is particularly underscored in the third-trimester procedures, but it equally true in first- and second-trimester abortions.
Dr. Sella said in a panel discussion we were on that with gay rights there have been situations with legislators, when a family member came out and it affected their personal point of view. If a legislator’s daughter had an abortion, he might not ever know. I mean, people have a right to privacy. Everyone shouldn’t have to tell their story, but if people put their story out there and talk about it, it contributes to the understanding of the issue.
RHRC: Will there be physicians willing to do this work in the future? What does the future of third-trimester abortions look like?
MS: There is a new provider who is working with Dr. Sella and Dr. Susan Robinson in Albuquerque. She’s 35 years old. They are excited about her involvement. They do hear from medical students interested in providing these procedures, but what they are most concerned about is the procedure remaining legal. The loss of legality is the biggest threat.
Our post-theatrical plans for the film are to bring it to medical schools and show it to the students. We are hopeful that it might encourage the students to demand that their schools continue to teach abortion procedures. We also hope that it would create a more supportive atmosphere for their peers who do this work in the future, by showing that they are not monsters.
RHRC: Have you had anyone share any personal change of heart with you as a result of viewing this film? What other kinds of feedback have you received from your film?
MS: At the screenings we’ve attended, we’ve had some people say that they consider themselves very “pro-life,” but that they didn’t realize how complicated the issue is. I think that it can be the beginning of thinking more deeply about the issue. That type of conversation has happened many times. I think it is definitely affecting people.