Though After Tiller’s title refers to the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, implying an assessment of how things have changed for late-term abortion providers in the four years since, this filmcould really have been made before Tiller, so to speak. Its agenda—which to its credit it makes no effort to disguise—is to put a more intimate, human face on the procedure, no doubt in hopes of swaying viewers who support abortion rights in general but are still disturbed by the idea of it happening in the fifth month of pregnancy and beyond. To that end, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson spend a great deal of time not only with the four remaining U.S. doctors who perform third-trimester abortions, but with the patients who seek them—all of whom remain anonymous, the camera trained either at the backs of their heads or, more frequently, at their hands, anxiously rubbing against each other or obsessively wrinkling a napkin.
In theory, this strategy is commendable, at least to those who share After Tiller's worldview. (Anti-abortion organizations will surely consider the film propaganda.) In practice, however, it’s problematic bordering on useless, regardless of one’s own convictions on the subject. Sure, the doctors are all ceaselessly compassionate, and the mothers—most of them carrying a fetus that’s been diagnosed with severe disabilities—all emphasize their heartfelt desire to spare their unborn child a life of pain and hardship. But both parties are very much aware that a camera is a few feet away, recording every word for a documentary about late-term abortion. That’s not to suggest that anybody is intentionally dissembling—just that it’s about as illuminating as a job interview in terms of what people are actually going through. After Tiller is an hour and a half of folks on their best behavior, presented as a candid portrait.
The film is more successful when the doctors speak directly to the lens, rather than talking to patients as if the camera isn’t there, and when it directly addresses the question of how to go about doing a job knowing that it may result in being murdered by a fanatic. Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who moved his practice to Maryland after Nebraska made third-trimester abortion illegal (only nine states currently allow it), relates the story of his stable being burned to the ground (killing 21 horses) and insists that the violence only strengthens his resolve, an assertion echoed by his three colleagues. “Nobody wants an abortion,” Dr. Susan Robinson says, emerging from an interview with a suicidal pregnant mother. Breaking down the mother’s options, she concludes, “Those are your three choices. They all suck. But you have to pick one of them.” It’s the bluntest moment in a documentary populated with subjects who rarely let their guards down—but maybe that’s an occupational hazard in this particular line of work.