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After Tiller

Posted by martinteller on October 15, 2013

Following the assassination of Dr. George Tiller by anti-abortion extremists in 2009, only four doctors remain in the United States who perform third-trimester abortions: Dr. Leroy Carhart, Dr. Shelley Sella, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Warren Hern.  Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson follow these four as they try to provide service to those who need it, dodging protesters and political manipulation and death threats, while struggling with their own doubts.  The voices of the patients are also heard, women making excruciatingly difficult decisions about life and death.

There are those who believe that documentarians are obligated to present an “unbiased” view.  My belief is that the concept of an “objective” documentary is an impossibility, that even in fly-on-the-wall work like that of Frederick Wiseman there is an inherent bias in the choice of footage to include.  The film of the Kennedy assassination is biased by Zapruder’s choice of where to point the camera.  There is no such thing as an objective viewpoint.  But Shane and Wilson will most likely draw some criticism for their one-sided view of this sensitive issue.  The only voices from the anti-abortion side are fleeting shots of protestors, none interviewed for the film.

However, the movie is not dogmatic either.  Although it is not likely to sway anyone’s opinion who is vehemently against third-trimester abortions, there is plenty of grey area.  It is, after all, an issue absolutely loaded with grey area, and yet one that demands that certain lines be drawn in order to accommodate interpretable laws.  It’s an issue where extremists on both sides obscure the discussion with loaded rhetoric to avoid the nuances (note that I refuse to use the term “pro-life”).  One of my favorite moments is when Dr. Sella insists that she thinks of them as “babies”, not “fetuses”.  It’s a bold stance to take for an abortion doctor, refusing to hide behind a clinical word.

And there is the extraordinarily complex issue of deciding which patients to accept.  When watching the film and hearing the stories of the patients, it’s damn near impossible not to play judge and jury in your head, determining who is worthy of the procedure and who isn’t.  Each doctor must make their own choices, choices about someone else’s body… like a bartender deciding when a patron has had enough.  But when there are only four doctors who can even do the abortion, and the clock is ticking, the choice is that much more difficult.  Dr. Robinson talks profoundly on the subject, asking who is she to determine if a patient’s story is compelling enough?

The patients themselves are filmed tastefully and discreetly as hands, feet, and backs of heads to protect their identities.  But their anguish comes through, and some of their cases are absolutely heartbreaking.  One or two might seem selfish or unreasonable, introducing that element of judgment I mentioned above.  It challenges even a staunch pro-choice supporter like myself to ask where do you start drawing lines.  But that is the beauty of the film (which is carried out in gentle tones, free of inflamed exaggeration and delivered with a respectful serenity)… it is thought-provoking in ways that linger with you and promote sensible discussion.  One-sided?  Perhaps, but when it comes to this issue, even one side contains a multitude of variations and nuances.  One thing is made abundantly clear: this is not easy for anyone involved.  Rating: Very Good (85)


2 Responses to “After Tiller”

  1. clydeumney said

    If you want a laugh riot way to follow this up (maybe not), you might check out LAKE OF FIRE, by Tony Kaye. It’s his documentary about the abortion issue in America, and he filmed it over the course of 15+ years. It does take a look more at both sides of the debate, but like this one, it’s more interested in realizing that there is no easy answer, and that no one involved is approaching this lightly. It’s not exactly a light watch, but I think it’s a remarkable film – the rare abortion film that gives equal time to murdered workers and aborted children, and although you’re right that there’s no such thing as a truly “objective” film, I think Kaye does his best to look at both sides as dispassionately as possible.

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