Let’s dispense with any sense of objectivity at the top: I’m pro-choice, and have been since I was four. I was raised that way, and I haven’t been persuaded otherwise. When life begins (or what constitutes life) seems essentially scientifically unprovable at this time, so I trust women and their partners—who are unequivocally alive—to make the call, for whatever reason.
After Tiller, on the other hand, does not overtly state its position, but it is clearly made for a pro-choice audience that is either on the fence about late-term abortion (which is extremely unpopular even among pro-choice advocates), or for those who merely seek more talking points for their beliefs. (Late in the documentary, a doctor explaining her dedication to her profession says, exasperated: “Nobody fucking wants to have an abortion.”) The movie seems unwilling and unable to address the concerns of pro-lifers—the pro-choice arguments it puts forth are no different (or less infallible) than anything else used before or after Roe v. Wade.
Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, After Tiller is instead a purely humanist appeal, largely focused on the three remaining clinics that provide late-term abortions in the country, and the difficult moral quandaries that pregnancy can bring. Modern medicine still does not alert women to fatal or painful birth defects such as Walker-Warburg syndrome, osteogenesis imperfecta, or ancephaly until late second or early third trimester—or, in less clinical terms, only after months of anticipation from the excited expectant parent(s), friends, and family. Indeed, one of the greatest services that the film provides is showing that these cases are the majority of those who seek late-term abortion. The testimonials of couples who, in addition to spending money on nurseries and baby toys, have traveled great distances to do what they feel is right for their unborn child, are emotionally harrowing. (One of the clinics also offers memorial services for their clients, openly acknowledging the sad fact that the first time one of these mothers holds her baby is also the last.)
However, there are plenty of patients in the film that fit the bill of pro-life smears—women who didn’t keep track of when their last period was, who didn’t realize they were pregnant, and have waited until the “last possible second” to act. After Tiller successfully humanizes these women too, revealing how their delays in action belie something more in their lives (either due to rape, mental issues/denial, or religious quandaries) while also underscoring how this delay in choice has meant a complete lack of pre-natal care which will likely lead to birth defects or health issues later in life. A glimpse of an email intake survey on one doctor’s computer shows the physical impact of such cognitive dissonance: one responder says she has pounded her belly and fallen down stairs in an attempt to miscarry, and in the meantime drinks to forget. The doctors and nurses hear the stories of women who want the procedure, and then decide whether or not to perform a late-term abortion, which says less about politics and more about the power of being able to tell a story.
After Tiller’s greatest failing is the way in which is fails to engage at length how entrenched the stalemate on abortion is. True to its name, the documentary instead highlights the ravages of this fervor by detailing the death threats and personal histories of the four remaining doctors who provide late-term abortions. Coming from diverse backgrounds, each doctor deals with the pressures of the profession in different ways that could warrant their own individual, feature-length documentaries: the lesbian midwife who still struggles with the disconnect between tissue in the first trimester and “a baby” in the third (“sounds barbaric, doesn’t it?” she muses); the man who emotionally shut down and lived alone for many years before finding love at a conference in Spain; the husband and wife who’ve worked together for almost 40 years in three states to provide an essential service. Yet the way in which the filmmakers present their struggles and conviction are often saccharine, inflated with soaring music that reduces these complex issues to tinkly toy piano fare.
Despite creating a rare documentary that has beautifully composed photography and is proficiently assembled, the filmmakers ultimately fail to make more than paper saints of the doctors they profile. This is not the abortion documentary that we need; it is merely the abortion documentary that we want.