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SEEING WHAT THEY WANT TO SEE: Dr. Robinson listens to a patient in <em>After Tiller</em>.
Oscilloscope Laboratories
SEEING WHAT THEY WANT TO SEE: Dr. Robinson listens to a patient in After Tiller.

Smiling barbarians

Documentary | After Tiller tries hard to put a kind and gentle face on late-term abortion

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

The documentary opens with late-term abortionist Leroy Carhart squirting ultrasound gel on a pregnant belly and looking at the baby on the screen. He tells the mother, lying on the exam table, “You’re welcome to watch or not. … See what you want to see.” The woman, who is obviously far along in her pregnancy, is sobbing, and Carhart gives her tissues. You can’t see her face. 

After Tiller follows the four known late-term abortionists remaining in the United States after the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a late-term abortionist in Kansas. There’s LeRoy Carhart in Maryland, Warren Hern in Colorado, as well as Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson at the same center in New Mexico (they have recently trained a young woman to carry on their practice). The four do abortions around 28 or 30 weeks of gestation–when a baby can open her eyes. In the film the four are unsung heroes doing the work that no one else has the stomach for, as if their work was something like amputating a gangrenous limb. The film attempts to normalize what is almost unanimously unpopular in the United States: only 14 percent of Americans think third-trimester abortions should be legal, according to 2013 numbers from Gallup. The directors, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane, openly believe the practice should be legal.

At the premiere screening in New York (promoted by NARAL Pro-Choice New York), Wilson brought up a proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks in Albuquerque, N.M., which she described as “incredibly disturbing.” She wants the film to remove the “shame and stigma around this,” she said. The directors mentioned that some pro-choice groups were “nervous” about the film. After all, even the most pro-abortion Democrats avoid discussing late-term abortions (check out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s response after the Gosnell trial). But if it’s possible to persuade the incredulous public that third-trimester abortions are somehow acceptable, this film would be a step in that direction. How could the practice be so wrong if such nice people are doing it?

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First, here is what is good about this documentary: No unbiased, let alone pro-life, filmmaker would ever get such steady access into these late-term abortion centers. And while you’re spending time inside the centers, you have to think about what is actually happening there. You don’t see the women’s faces, but you hear them discuss their decisions to go through with a third-trimester abortion, even as you see them crying and cradling their bellies. At one point a staffer explains the process of a third-trimester abortion to a woman over the phone: that they will euthanize the baby with an injection into its heart, and then deliver it “stillborn,” an incredibly passive term.

“The woman delivers a baby and it’s a stillborn. And that’s hard to deal with,” said Sella, who works at the New Mexico center with Robinson. “I think the reason I’ve struggled is I think of them as babies. I don’t think of them as a fetus. … You can’t say, ‘That’s some tissue.’ It’s a baby.” But she goes on: “It’s inside the mother and she can’t handle it for many, many extreme and desperate reasons. Unless you understand what’s going on for the woman, it’s impossible to support it, how could you? It sounds barbaric.”

Wilson purposefully began the film with stories from a number of women seeking abortions in cases of severe fetal anomalies “to get people over the hump of third trimester abortions,” she said. Then the film moves on to cases where the mothers just don’t want the babies. There is a woman whose baby would be mentally retarded. Then there is a teenager who doesn’t want the baby, even though her boyfriend’s family said they would adopt it. Kudos to the directors for showing one of the staffers at the New Mexico center objecting to this particular abortion. Robinson struggles but decides to go ahead with the abortion, saying that women must make the ethical decision themselves.

In the background of all of this, pro-lifers are a quiet threat, starting with the news clips from Tiller’s murder that share tweets celebrating Tiller’s death. The depiction is unfair because every major pro-life group condemned the murder of Tiller. The four doctors regularly talk about the prospect of vigilantes coming to murder them, and Hern refers to pro-lifers as “terrorists.”

By contrast all four of the abortionists are endearing in front of the camera; nice people who must therefore be doing explicable things. Hern jokes with his elderly mother about “no running the halls,” and kisses her. He goes on a hike with his wife and stepson. Carhart’s wife has a hilarious deadpan eye roll. Robinson has a sort of Julia Child charm. Wilson said she wanted to “humanize” the four because they are often political caricatures. Humanizing the babies, on the other hand, apparently wasn’t relevant: The question of when life begins is philosophical, Wilson said.

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