After Tiller, a documentary about the only four doctors in the country who perform elective late-term abortions understands that at its core. The film is editorial only insofar as it seeks first to understand rather than judge. Why, in the wake of the murder of their colleague, would these four doctors risk their lives to perform these procedures?
The answer to that question turns out to be surprisingly varied. One doctor, an ex-military man, speaks about having a “mission” mentality that does not turn away simply because one takes fire. Another, who comes from a midwifery background, sees in Tiller a logical emblem of her philosophy to trust the woman’s body and the autonomy of the patient decision.
Because the film is rooted in the particular cases, it avoids and inoculates itself from the sorts of generalizations that so often plague the abortion debate. A couple seeking an abortion desperately wanted a child but have been informed that their unborn child has a maximum life expectancy of four years and will be in constant pain. They know they will be plagued by guilt whatever they decide. One of the doctors deliberately eschews the term “fetus” and refers to the aborted as “babies” to deny herself an easy mental cop out; she asks rhetorically, “It sounds barbaric, doesn’t it?” Protesters try to save children by setting a fire that momentarily is feared to have endangered the life of a child. A law passed in one state raises the cost of abortion in another state, forcing a woman seeking an abortion to wait longer in order to acquire the money to fund travel.
Little in After Tiller is what one expects or anticipates, and that’s the point. The film attempts to educate more than it attempts to persuade; lacking a perceptible agenda of its own, it is not afraid to depict that which is inconvenient to the agenda of either side. A doctor can be simultaneously motivated by memories of abused, unwanted children and say to a mother that has aborted that the important thing to acknowledge is that she has suffered a trauma. Protesters can claim they are concerned about the long term mental health of the prospective mother but remain aloof to the suicidal desperation of pregnant teenager.
The most surprising element of the film, for me, were the counseling sessions between doctors and patients. Filmed to protect the identities of the mothers and fathers, but allowing them to tell their stories, these scenes show a bond between doctor and patient that is hard to describe with any other word than love. Some may protest that this love gets misguided and misdirected, but it is hard to deny its authenticity.
Late in the film, one doctor delivers what could be the film’s coda. Her assistant has been worried that one prospective patient is not committed to the course of treatment. The expectant mother is religious, from a religious community, and perhaps she will torture herself for the decision. The doctor believes the patient is committed to the procedure as the best of several bad options available to her. The patient has repeated that she is “committed” to this course of action. Perhaps, the doctor opines, “she just can’t bring herself to say the words ‘I want an abortion.'”
There is a pause, and the the controlled demeanor shown to public and patient gives way in a private glimpse: “Nobody fucking wants an abortion!” she flares.
Nobody really wants an abortion doctor, either.
Until they do.