Sundance 2013: ‘After Tiller’ puts a face on abortion doctors

"After Tiller" director Lana Wilson, left, with her subjects, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. LeRoy Carhart, and co-director Martha Shane at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary looks at doctors who perform late-term abortions.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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This post has been corrected. For details, see the note at the bottom.

Premiering today at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. documentary competition, “After Tiller” is an intimate and heartfelt look at the four doctors performing third-trimester abortions in the United States, doing so even after the 2009 assassination of such a physician, Dr. George Tiller. Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, who spent almost three years on the project, the film brings an emotional clarity to an issue in which every nuanced turn of phrase has been made politically complicated.

At the film’s premiere Friday afternoon at Park City, Utah’s Temple theater, visible security measures were in place, including police and armed sheriffs in green jumpsuits. Attendees had to have their bags searched and were checked by guards with hand-held metal detectors.


“What’s interesting is that the four doctors really are proud of what they do,” said Shane during a phone interview from Park City on Thursday morning. “They don’t feel they are working in the shadows. They’re brave enough to let the world know they do third-trimester abortions, they are public about it. I think part of the reason they agreed to participate in this film was actually to show that they are proud of the work that they do, it helps women and alleviates suffering.”

Late abortions make up less than 1% of all abortions performed in the United States, yet they are a frequent part of the debate over abortion rights. It was small discoveries like that which drew the duo to the subject.

“I feel like our generation has been really alienated from the abortion debate,” added Wilson. (Both filmmakers are 29.) “It’s just become a shouting match. We wanted to make something that would show the complexity and the gray area. The gray area over this issue is where real women are making real decisions about their lives.”

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Having spent some four to six weeks with each doctor -- looking to craft individual portraits to provide a sense of their unique stories as well as the larger issues they all face -- the filmmakers realized that showing the doctors with their patients was crucial to understanding why they do what they do.

“We set out to make a film about the doctors but as we started, it became really clear that the best way to get to know the doctors was through filming them with their patients,” said Shane. “That’s where you really see how empathetic they are toward what these women are going through and the sort of medical care they provide. They really are experts in their field and provide amazing care by any standard.


“The reason why they want to do this work is to help these women. So you need to understand the stories of the women they are helping in order to understand why they want to do this every day and risk their lives to do it.”

Even in the face of threats and the killing of Tiller, the doctors see their work as important and worth continuing. As to whether the protests against what he does ever gave him doubts regarding his work, Dr. LeRoy Carhart said, “I never even give it a second thought.”

As to why the doctors agreed to participate, Dr. Susan Robinson said by phone, “Abortion in general, particularly third-trimester abortion, is so stigmatized and cloaked in secrecy and shame it’s just appalling. And we were happy to be putting some sort of human face to this that people would realize most people in abortion care are not gruesome characters, they are people with plenty of options to do other things.

“We do it because we know that people desperately need it,” Robinson added, “and we find it satisfying in that we get to help every woman that walks through the door.”

Women turn to these late procedures for both personal and medical reasons, including fetal anomalies, the health of the mother, and sometimes because young women don’t even realize or admit to themselves that they are pregnant.

The protest movement against abortion is kept in the background of the film, a low-level hum that is always present but never given center stage except during such moments as when Carhart has to move his practice from Nebraska to Maryland due to changes in state law.


“We tried to frame it as clearly as possible as being a part of these doctors and seeing it from their point of view,” said Wilson, “and for them, the protesters are there kind of buzzing in the background all the time, but they are not a big presence in their lives, other than a possible threat lurking there. I think we wanted to represent the protesters in a way that was true to the doctors’ experiences of them, but we also didn’t want to make them look crazy or one-dimensional. Even though they are a small part of the doctors’ lives, we tried to treat them fairly when they are in the film.”

“I think one of our goals as filmmakers was not to make an issue movie,” added Wilson, “not tell people what to think but just give people the space to start asking questions. We want to spark a conversation on this subject and we want people to feel comfortable asking questions.”

Staff writer Julie Makinen in Park City, Utah, contributed to this report.

[For the record, 9:32 p.m. Jan. 18: An earlier version of this post said Dr. George Tiller was killed in 1999.]


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