‘After Tiller’: A powerful defense of women’s right to choose

The documentary movie “After ­Tiller” chronicles the profoundly important story of four doctors in the U.S. who risk their lives daily to provide third-trimester abortions and the desperate women who need them.

The title of the award-winning film, which was released commercially in late September, refers to Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated on Sunday, May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher in his church in Wichita, Kan. Dr. Tiller had long been a target of anti-abortion terrorists because he was one of the few U.S. doctors who did abortions after 24 weeks. His killer is now serving a life sentence.

All four doctors, who had worked with Tiller or knew him personally, were determined to carry on his work despite life-threatening stakes. Like Dr. Tiller, whose motto was “Trust women,” all four believe they must provide vital health-care services for the less than 1 percent of women who seek third-trimester abortions.

What makes the film emotionally gripping and incredibly effective is how filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson chose to tell the story. Rather than focus on the polarized politics of abortion, they went behind the headlines and profiled the doctors — as they carefully, thoughtfully counseled patients or figured out whether to take or refuse them; as they talked about why they were inspired to continue Dr. Tiller’s work and the personal risks involved in doing so; and as they relaxed at home with their loved ones whose daily support and sustenance they rely on.

Equally important, the filmmakers allowed the physicians’ patients to speak for themselves. Their stories will make you weep. Three women describe (only their voices are heard) why they came to the painful decision to end wanted pregnancies because tests or sonograms showed severe fetal abnormalities. One couple, “born-again” Christians, state that they “know abortion is wrong” and they feel terribly guilty, but after weighing all the options, they must abort their son who would be born without a brain.

Meanwhile, a young woman promises to report the rapist who impregnated her, while a 16-year-old from a Catholic family, who has been in deep denial about being pregnant, finally decides she must have an abortion.

Each of the doctors is an articulate, compassionate, real-life hero: Dr. Warren Hern in Boulder, Colo.; Drs. Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Dr. LeRoy Carhart, formerly of Bellevue, Neb., who, when abortions after 20 weeks were banned there, relocated to Germantown, Md.

Each of their stories tugs at your heart: Dr. Hern, whose aging mother worries about him; Dr. Robinson, who candidly admits, “Nobody wants to have an abortion”; Dr. Sella, a lesbian who started her career as a midwife; and Dr. Carhart, who says, in a soft but firm voice, that he could not continue without his spouse of 50 years, his childhood sweetheart, Mary.

The film’s major contribution is that it puts the spotlight where it truly belongs — on women and their doctors. In order to counter the escalating demonization of women who seek abortions and the misogynous crusade to outlaw all abortions, not just late ones, this film should have the widest possible distribution — in schools and colleges, on public television and cable, on the internet.

Shane and Wilson deserve accolades for creating a compelling portrait of women’s lives that has never before been so starkly, so compassionately and so honestly revealed. (aftertillermovie.com) Four stars!

Davis, a longtime reproductive justice activist, has self-published a pro-choice novel, “Love Means Second Chances.”

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