[TRIGGER WARNINGS GALORE: violence, harassment, rape, terrorism,
contempt for agency, animal cruelty.]
For decades, abortion providers in the United States have been the targets of terrorism*. Since 1977 so-called “pro-life” elements have engaged in more than 175,000 reported acts of disruption (including bomb threats, anthrax scares, chemical assaults and vandalism) and 6,400 reported acts of violence (including bombings, arson, death threats and kidnappings). In the past two decades alone, “pro-life” terrorists have murdered eight clinic workers including four doctors, two clinic employees, a clinic escort and a security guard, and there have been at least seventeen more attempted murders. While pro-choice rhetoric often centers on the pregnant person—as it should—the stories of their doctors are lost in all the noise about “baby killers” and the wholly fictitious Abortion Industrial Complex, except during brief periods when their assassinations make front page news. In the new documentary After Tiller, filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson set out to give these doctors a voice. And what they have to say is both illuminating and moving in surprising ways.
The “Tiller” in the film’s title is Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita-based provider of third-trimester abortions shot and killed in his church in 2009. The film takes us into the professional and personal lives of the only four remaining physicians openly practicing late abortions in the United States, three of whom Dr. Tiller mentored personally, and all of whom were his colleagues and friends. Tiller’s murder only steeled their resolve to continue this work; in the film, his is as powerful a presence as their own.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella granted Shane and Wilson extensive interviews and extraordinary access to their daily lives. Part of the reason the doctors chose to participate is their hope that “if more Americans could meet them, and hear where they were coming from—even if they still disagreed with the work that they did—they at least might not want to kill them.” If only. For all of the compassion these doctors show for their patients, for all of the bravery and commitment they display in the face of tremendous obstacles thrown in their way by lawmakers and anti-choice zealots, their enemies are of a decidedly different mind:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a nurse, receptionist, bookkeeper, or janitor, if you work for the murderous abortionist I’m going to kill you…I figured for every one I killed, I’d get another one to quit.”
–Clayton Waagner, anti-abortion terrorist, currently serving 30 years in an Illinois prison.
“Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgement upon our nation.”
–Scott Roeder, convicted murderer of Dr. George Tiller.
But if it sounds as if the doctors occupy the opposite end of the abortion extremist spectrum, this is not the case. These physicians think deeply about the complex moral implications of their work, and struggle daily to find the right answer to the question of what is best for people. Sometimes that answer is unequivocal: terminating a third trimester pregnancy. Sometimes not. But unlike that of their tormentors, theirs is not a black-&-white world, populated predominantly with innocent little babies and Evil Baby Killer villains.
Which bring us to their patients. They come from a variety of religious, racial, socio-economic and family structure backgrounds, and collectively present the viewer with a wide range of circumstances surrounding pregnancy and the decision to terminate: we see several would-be parents who recently learned that much-wanted pregnancies are nonviable due to devastating fetal abnormalities; a young rape victim in shock and denial; an impoverished mother overwhelmed with family commitments who was unable to secure funds for an earlier, less expensive termination; and a haunting note from a desperate and suicidal 14-year old pregnant for the second time. Having never expected to find themselves in these predicaments, many agreed to participate in the film precisely because they saw sharing their own stories as the only way anyone could possibly understand their plight.
And that’s just what sets late abortions apart from earlier ones, isn’t it? No matter where one stands on abortion rights, no one envisions their future self facing a third trimester abortion, and thus it is all too easy to internalize the simplistic sound bites of abortion opponents without ever really thinking these through. When finally faced with the previously unthinkable, naive narratives bring only additional anguish and obfuscation to a person in a desperate and difficult situation, when what is needed is compassion and clear thinking. In their preliminary counseling sessions we hear these patients express stark, painful emotions: sadness, guilt, anger, grief, fear and plenty of ambivalence—although after ending their pregnancies every single one of them expresses great relief and gratitude. These doctors are keenly aware that their patients may very well feel differently tomorrow or years from now, and in this regard patients are counseled to show themselves some kindness, with the understanding that at this time, they made the very best decision that they could. This exchange is typical of the thoughtful dialogue that occurs before any termination is scheduled; it is in these scenes more than anywhere else in the film that the sensitivity of the doctors and their patients is most vividly on display, and their ethical considerations most evident.
One conversation troubled me, however. At a post-abortion follow-up visit, Dr. Warren Hern adamantly pressures a young rape victim to report her rape. Hern is portrayed as a deeply caring person, and part of his motivation here is that this victim deserves to see justice for her own sake. But he also explicitly reinforces the trope that she should report her rape in order to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else. But the implication that a rape victim is in any way responsible for her rapist’s subsequent behavior is 180 degrees off the mark. A rape victim usually has enough trauma and guilt to process without adding to it any responsibility for future victims. She has none. The rapist is 100% responsible for raping. Period, full stop. Here, Hern comes across not as callous, but rather surprisingly oblivious to the consequences for women who choose to report, and the very real concerns that affect those decisions. (See, e.g., here.) At the end of Hern’s conversation with his patient, she promises him she will report, and hugs him. I felt like screaming.
And speaking of screaming. *ahem*
The filmmakers chose to represent the anti-abortion movement as the doctors themselves experience it, “as a constant presence in the background, whether standing outside their clinics in protest, or lurking in the air as a potential threat,” and they “were careful not to portray the protestors in any extreme or cartoonish way, but rather, in the moments we do have with them, to hear the more reasonable arguments they have against late abortion.” But the protestors are by their very nature extreme and cartoonish: ostentatiously reciting Christian prayers in front of clinics (in violation of Matthew 6:5), delivering self-righteous diatribes at community events, packing a church vigil festooned in “LIFE” regalia, holding up the tiny diaper of a prematurely born infant at a local zoning meeting—and that’s to say nothing of their signage, which ranges from deceitful to absurd to grotesque. But if Shane and Wilson were careful not to turn up the heat on protesters, perhaps this is because the doctors do such a fine job of it themselves merely by recounting their own lives. A doctor’s barn deliberately burned to the ground, killing 22 horses. Bullet holes through clinic windows. A gruesome protest at a child’s middle school on back-to-school night in an effort to intimidate her landlord father from renting space to Dr. Carhart. If that is not cartoonish and extreme, then nothing is. I was left with the feeling that the filmmakers let them off the hook too easily. (If you have the spoons for it, read the NARAL report Anti-Choice Violence and Intimidation to see exactly what this portrayal is missing.)
And of course we never hear any reasonable arguments for restricting abortions. In fact I have never heard a single one. Anywhere. Ever.
Shane and Wilson say that their agenda in making After Tiller was “not political, but humanist.” On the humanist front, they certainly succeed: anyone who watches the film will have difficulty painting abortion doctors (and abortion patients) as two-dimensional caricatures, the way their opponents frequently portray them. That the doctors continue to live and work with the awareness that an assassin’s bullet could strike them down at any time—and that their loved ones are also in danger—is more than just a ringing testament to their personal courage and commitment, borne of compassion for humanity and thoroughly thoughtful concern for what is best for people. When it comes to 21st century abortion politics in the United States, anything that moves the conversation in a humanizing direction is a most welcome and necessary political development. In this realm perhaps more than any other, the personal is political. And After Tiller makes a powerful political statement, whether the filmmakers set out to do so or not.
* If you think “terrorism” is bit of hyperbole, you are not alone. A U.S. government database maintained to track incidents of terrorism includes secular anarchists, animal rights activists, eco-terrorists and of course Islamic extremists, but only two anti-abortion attacks—and one of those was in Nepal. But just consider for a moment how such actions would be characterized if the perpetrators were overwhelmingly Muslims, instead of peaceful and loving followers of Jeezus Haploid Christ.
“I am the anti-abortion extremist, a terrorist to the abortion industry.”
–Clayton Waagner, anti-abortion terrorist serving 30 years in an Illinois prison.