After several previous attempts on his life, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in 2009. He was one of only a handful of physicians to provide late-term abortions in America; this documentary profiles the remaining four doctors, all Tiller protégés who do their work under constant stress and the threat of attack by anti-abortion proponents.
After Tiller isn’t about making a case; it’s about painting a picture of the day-to-day work done by these four doctors as they counsel pregnant women and grapple with their own sometimes-conflicted feelings about their profession and the attendant risks. There are the obvious ones of safety – one doctor offhandedly mentions that the odd structural layout of her home is a good deterrent for sniper fire, while another one relates how anti-abortion zealots burned down his stable, slaughtering three-dozen horses). But After Tiller movingly dramatizes another side effect of the job: how difficult it can be for the doctors to not internalize the sadness of the women who walk through their doors.
Understandably, very few of these women show their faces on camera as they explain why they’ve chosen to terminate their pregnancies in the third trimester – one is motivated by dire economic straits, another doesn’t want to carry to term the product of a rape, while several cite lethal fetal conditions – but co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson zero in on the women’s hands as they wring worriedly, reach out for a partner’s hand for comfort, or stroke a pregnant belly. It’s gutting stuff to watch, thankfully not further goosed by the filmmakers for dramatic effect. The issue of late-term abortions tends to inspire polemics from both sides of the debate; Shane and Wilson’s approach – sensitive, measured, workmanlike – is a welcome one.