February 6, 2014

Heroes or Villains, Doctors or Murderers?

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Americans are more starkly divided between pro-life and pro-choice than they are on virtually any other topic.  Yet when it comes to the allowance of late-term abortions (abortions during the final trimester of a pregnancy), Americans are largely in agreement  —  80 percent are against them.

Delicately, the documentary After Tiller brings nuance to a topic where nuance often gets engulfed in the flames of feverous rhetoric and vitriol.  The act of bringing the camera into the clinics of the only four doctors in the country who perform late-term procedures grants the viewer a fuller sense of the moral quandaries and human emotions that deserve to be weighed when discussing late-term abortions.  Some of the patients at these clinics have recently discovered that their child has a rare multi-syllable abnormality that will render the child’s life short and painful.  One of the patients was a victim of rape.  Others have put off an abortion for religious or family reasons and are now panicking over the prospect of parenthood as the fortieth week approaches.

Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane remain hidden, yielding the spotlight to the four doctors themselves to explain their decisions, indecisions and why they continue to perform procedures that many find abhorrent, even murderous.  At a time when 58 percent of Americans identify as pro-life, the scenes and situations inside the clinic will shed new light on some understandable reasons why some may seek an abortion in the final 15 weeks of pregnancy.

After Tiller illustrates that there are no real winners in the business of late-term abortions.  Because the abortions result in the “delivery” of a stillborn, many of the parents treat the “birth” of their child as a death.  Several surreal scenes show parents saying hello and goodbye to their child at the same time.  Memorial services and mementos, such as footprints, from the stillborn’s “life,” are provided by the clinic.

There used to be five late-term abortion-performing doctors until the titular Dr. George Tiller died by assassination outside his Wichita church on a Sunday in 2009.  In spite of, and seemingly inspired by the death of their dear friend Tiller, the four remaining doctors demonstrate their desire to press on despite the constant fear that their lives will end the same way as Tiller’s.  This fear is made real when the film follows the doctors’ lives outside the clinics.  We meet their families, see their homes and learn their hobbies.  The viewer sees these doctors as complete humans, in contrast with the anti-late-term protesters, who remain nameless and seem overzealous and irrational.

There is a slightly unfair manipulation of the viewer during these scenes — it is easier to view these doctors’ opinions on their professions more sympathetically after watching them pet their puppies, kiss their sweet elderly mothers and ski down pristine mountain slopes.  Conversely, it is easier to view the anti-late-term abortion argument with more scorn when only the most radical anti-abortionists are seen.  The film shows the opponents who make hate calls to the doctors’ homes at midnight and who hold signs outside the clinics while verbally guilting young women with charges of sin as they walk in.

The film also positions right wing state legislators as enemies, particularly those in the Nebraska State Legislature, which passed one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country. The law criminalizes abortions after 20 weeks, forcing one of the film’s featured doctors on an odyssey across the country in search of a more hospitable state to continue performing procedures.  The views of these legislators are never explained beyond brief sound bites and their personal lives are never explored.

Perhaps then, After Tiller is best experienced as a human interest story, not as an editorialized comment on where the viewer should stand on Roe v. Wade.  The viewer could remain ardently pro-life yet still gain an appreciation for the four late-term doctors.  The viewer can appreciate that these are men and women who wear scrubs and tell bad jokes and love their families just like the rest of us.  These are four people who antagonize over the impossibly difficult moral decisions that they must confront each day.  Whatever your politics, these are not people who desire to be gunned down on their way out of church.

Whether you find their defense of late-term abortions moving or not is almost secondary.