ReThink Review: After Tiller -- Defending Late-Term Abortion

In May 2009, George Tiller, one of just a handful of doctors in the US who performed late-term abortions, was murdered in the foyer of his church in Wichita, Kansas by an anti-abortion extremist. His spirit and dedication to women's health infuses After Tiller, a documentary that follows the four remaining doctors in the US who continue to perform late-term abortions despite endless protests, threats of violence, shot-out windows, and efforts to pass laws making it impossible for them to do their jobs. Now I'm not one to draw false equivalencies, but I think a big reason why late-term abortion is one of the most controversial subjects in American politics and culture is because a lack of understanding on this issue makes it easy for both sides to talk past each other, when I think what's really needed is to hear from the doctors performing this procedure and the people who request it. And in that, I think After Tiller should be required viewing if you want to have a truly informed stance on this issue.

Watch the trailer for After Tiller below.

After Tiller follows doctors Warren Hern in Boulder, Colorado, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella in Albuquerque, and LeRoy Carhart in Nebraska as restrictive new anti-abortion laws force him to close his clinic and attempt to open a new one in Iowa or Maryland. After just a few minutes of watching these doctors consult with colleagues and patients, two prevalent anti-abortion myths can be completely dispelled.

The first is that doctors who perform abortions, particularly late-term ones, could only be monsters and mass murderers motivated by fat suitcases of abortion money. Instead, you see men and women who are gentle, compassionate, endlessly sympathetic, and respectful of their patients, while also being willing to ask tough questions to be sure that this is what the patient wants and what the procedure entails. Never do the doctors take what they do lightly, cognizant that -- whether they like it or not -- they are the final judges who must decide if the circumstances warrant granting the abortion or not, and whether the patient is mentally healthy enough to handle it.

The other anti-abortion myth to be disproven is that women wanting late-term abortions are either grossly irresponsible or somehow haven't thought about what they're doing or their possible alternatives. In After Tiller, you quickly see how condescending and patronizing this is as you hear couples tearfully describe the agony of learning late in the pregnancy that their child has a catastrophic fetal abnormality, and how they came to the wrenching decision to end the pregnancy instead of dooming their baby to a short life of suffering or years of pain with no quality of life. To think that some Christian right protestor would claim that they've studied the issue more and know what's better for a family than these grieving parents is infuriating, and anti-abortion critics' claims that they care more about life and whether fetuses feel pain would hold more water if conservatives seemed to give a shit about the life of a child outside the womb and didn't delight so much in cutting funding for child nutrition, education, after school programs, and support for single parents while calling for the US to bomb any country that offends us.

At the same time, After Tiller also shows a range of cases, like a college student who had been raped, a 15-year-old whose religious parents are trying to force her to have the baby, and a woman who got pregnant but didn't know it. In some of these cases, the women missed the window for a standard abortion by procrastinating or simply being in denial about what was happening. But, despite what anti-abortion activists say, late-term abortions aren't given indiscriminately, and if the doctors have enough misgivings for whatever reason -- as you see in more than one case -- they won't perform one.

But if you're against abortion, you should watch After Tiller, if anything to better know your opponent, but also to see that behind the debate over late-term abortion are actual people truly agonizing over which of several unfortunate options to choose from, and caring doctors who are risking their lives to allow them to make that difficult decision. And if you're pro-choice, you'll get an unflinching look at a world few have seen and fewer want to talk about, but one that will leave you knowing why the right to choose is so important and filled with admiration at the doctors committed to continuing George Tiller's work.

After Tiller is playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on October 4 and will be rolling out across the country throughout October. To find out when it will be playing near you, go here.