In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was one of only five doctors who practiced third-trimester abortions. He was one of the biggest targets of militant anti-abortionists, serving as a poster-child for the movement to end abortion. He had been targeted for assassination in the '90s, and a decade later, a gunman entered a church that he had attended for years and murdered him.
The killing rekindled national focus on third trimester abortions and the issue in general, with even people on the pro-choice side of the debate not wanting to engage the much more tinderbox topic of third trimester abortions for fear it could muddy the entire ongoing national discussion. But filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson did just that with their film After Tiller, which goes behind all the impassioned arguments to profile the four remaining people who perform the controversial procedure in the United States—doctors LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson.
After Tiller, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, will likely not end a debate that may, in fact, have no end, as evidenced by the headline-grabbing filibuster in Texas earlier this year, which once again turned a national spotlight on the issue. The film personalizes the procedures by focusing on the patients and doctors instead of the talking points, political maneuvering, and public theatrics.
Wilson and Shane discussed After Tiller with FilmLinc Daily ahead of the film's theatrical release this weekend—among other locations, it screens at Film Society's Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, where the filmmakers will participate in several post-screening Q&As. In the discussion, they explain their motives for making the film and how they were able to get the four doctors to agree to appear on camera. They also talk about speaking to patients seeking the procedure and why gray areas sometimes exist for the doctors as well.
FilmLinc Daily: How familiar were you both with Dr. Tiller before he was murdered in 2009?
Lana Wilson: Not familiar at all. We didn't know anything about him until he was killed and then it was all over the news.
FD: So what lead you to take on this topic in your film?
LW: The news said all these intriguing things that really sparked interest, like the fact he was killed in his church, which he and his family had been going to for over 20 years. That was surprising. And the news mentioned he had been shot once in his car going to work in the 1990s and then he went to work the very next day after being shot. I thought, "That is insane. Who would go to work the next day after being shot?" and what incredible dedication that was. So that made me very curious about him. Stories on the news weren't going very deep into the abortion issue. They said it was a controversial issue and that was about it, which made me think about a more critical approach.
I wanted to see who Dr. Tiller was as a complicated human being and a dramatic symbol of controversy. And now that he's gone, I was wondering who else is left doing this and whether they would all be scared away. We thought, wouldn't it be incredible to see these people who are such a focal point of such national controversy and to be a fly on the wall to see what their lives are like? And we wanted to see what we can learn from that and to give a new way of looking at the abortion debate—to view it in a critical, more nuanced way.
FD: I read after the Sundance premiere, Lana, that you said your generation has been "really alienated from the abortion debate." Can you elaborate?
LW: I think it's different for our generation because we weren't in the fight. We've grown up with abortion being legal and contraception being available and I think some women take that stuff for granted. There are women who are in desperate situations who need abortions. I think that's the disconnect. How is it possible that when there is contraception that there are women who still ending up needing abortions? I think that is something we tried to look at. In some cases, there are these unimaginable wrenching circumstances that had nothing to do with contraception. But there were other cases where the women are not getting a comprehensive sex education and we had to look at eduction and access to birth control and how some women are getting that—a lot of women in this country aren't.
I think it's easy in big cities for people with privileged backgrounds, who have easy access to [eduction and birth control], to then judge people and think, "She got pregnant and now she's having an abortion, well why didn't she use birth control? It's her own fault…" I think it's easy to judge people in that way. But I think you have to consider what people were taught as children and how that has affected them as adults. So one of the goals of this movie is to encourage more compassion and less judgement.
FD: There are only four doctors in the U.S. who perform late term abortions. I recall when seeing After Tiller you mentioned it was more difficult to get the female doctors to appear in the film. How did you get them to participate?
Martha Shane: Yeah it's true, we had the two male doctors on board first. We basically gave information about our vision for the film and then flew out to meet them in person at their clinics without any cameras. I think the male doctors were more comfortable because they had been doing interviews for a long time and were just more public figures already, whereas the two female doctors had been working under the radar. They also had worked more closely with and had been mentored by Dr. Tiller and he had never done any interviews. He'd always say, "It's not about me, it's about the patients…" and so they were coming from that school of thought, at first. But after his death, they had more time working on their own and then they were invited to do interviews for the Rachel Maddows documentary called The Assassination of Dr. Tiller. After agreeing to do that, they didn't see any upsurge in threats. So I think that gave them the confidence to let us at least visit the clinic and show us around and talk about it.
And once we met them in person, I think they felt confident we wouldn't be obtrusive and that we'd stay in the background. I think they felt comfortable with that idea. It was a way into their patients' stories as well, so I think that's why they agreed, ultimately, to be a part of it.
FD: So you wanted to stay in the background, but you were able to give glimpses into some of the women seeking the procedure. What were the boundaries set with the doctors or that you set before shooting?
LW: With the patients, it was a case by case basis. We'd see with each patient whether they felt comfortable with us shooting or not and went from there. With the doctors it is a security issue. We couldn't show the exterior, for instance, of a doctor's house because the protestors don't know where they live, so we didn't want to give that away. Also we had the security person from the National Abortion Federation screen the movie and she saw things we had never thought of. One scene showed where the gas line to a clinic is, so we had to [alter] that because a protester might tamper with it, so those were the kinds of boundaries in protecting the doctors' security.
FD: The anti-abortion crowd obviously forms a big backdrop to the movie and are always present, though they are rarely actually shown on screen. Why did you decide not to show them much on camera?
MS: I think we felt the abortion issue has turned into a shouting match. When Dr. Tiller was killed, they had to always have the pro-choice voice and then an anti-abortion speaker, but we wanted to focus on these four doctors exclusively by going in and telling more intimate stories. But at the same time, the protesters are a big part of the landscape of their lives. They're there—they are always present—but something the doctors don't think about so much because they're focused on their patients. But since we weren't going to interview them, we decided to shoot them in observational ways. We didn't want to show them in any strange angles or to make them any scarier than they are, but just show them in an observational way. We didn't want to make them look cartoonish or anything like that…
FD: Was it hard to get backing for this film?
LW: There are many in the pro-choice community who also don't want to talk about third trimester abortions because they see it as a losing argument and a distraction, so there's that. Many pro-choice advocates say they're still having to fight to keep contraception available, so why would we want to go down this road of third trimester abortions? But what we found is that some of these situations are the most moving and dramatic of all. So it was tricky. We ran up a lot of credit cards and at some point we had maxed out every credit card we could open. But we made it…
FD: There were some interesting moments in your film that might be a surprise for people on both sides of the issue. At times the doctors were shown struggling about whether they should grant a late term abortion in some cases, which typified a bit of the gray area that the doctors themselves may agree exists.
MS: I think, as filmmakers, we were trying to get a sense of what each doctor's individual storyline would be. As soon as we got to a clinic and started talking to the two female doctors, in particular Dr. Robinson, it was insightful particularly because having been in Kansas [where Dr. Tiller was based], they had to get approval from two doctors before performing anything. So they weren't making these decisions on their own; she was thinking through the decision process.
I think it was important to show that their primary concern is the safety of their patients, but also that not everybody is an amazing storyteller or advocate for their situation. Not everyone has a background and education to shape their story for why they need this abortion in the most compelling possible way. Many of these women have to travel a long way and leave work and their families and take time to get to these clinics. So, at times, action speaks louder than words. Part of the reason we felt good about only showing the doctors as opposed to the anti-abortion side is that the doctors have a very nuanced point of view of what these women are going through…
FD: How do you hope After Tiller will serve as a conduit in the ongoing and probably never-ending debate about abortion?
LW: Well we hope the take-away is that this is a lot more complicated than anyone thinks that it is. We hope that people will watch the movie and realize that the abstract debates around abortion are very different than the black-and-white talking points. There are many more gray situations women are facing on the ground. I hope people realize it is very personal and what is anyone's role in judging these women vs. having compassion for them? We tried to make a film that doesn't judge anyone and just eliminates that and shines a light on the issue so people can think about it for themselves. If people leave the theater asking themselves a lot of questions and reevaluating their position on the issue, no matter what it is, and thinking about it in a deeper way than they did before, then that to us is success.
MS: We've been surprised by how warmly the film has been received at festivals. The screening at True/False Film Festival was incredible. We had a little protest in Ann Arbor, MI but there haven't been that many. In fact, we've had many anti-abortion people come see the movie and come up to us afterward and say that it made them think differently about the issue and that it gave them more empathy for the women and what they're going through, even if it doesn't make them change their minds about the issue itself. It is something that makes people to take a fresh look at their own points of view whether they're anti-abortion or pro-choice. The response everywhere has been really amazing.