On May 31, 2009, a man was gunned down in a church. His name was George Tiller, and his crime, to many, was that he provided abortions. What particularly galled militant pro-life activists was that Tiller was one of a select few physicians offering third-trimester pregnancy termination. (This differs from other methods of abortion in that a woman actually goes into labor and delivers a stillborn child.) It’s a controversial procedure for an already contentious practice: Post-Tiller, just four doctors in the United States provide the service, all of whom are profiled in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s informative, fitfully affecting documentary.
The directors succeed in putting human faces on their subjects—Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella—following them at home and in their offices, observing as they deal with threats to their lives as well as with the very complicated issues that arise around this most difficult of decisions. Especially revealing are the scenes where the physicians interview prospective patients. Beyond the doctors themselves, we never see any faces, only hands shifting uncomfortably and knees tapping nervously as women from a variety of social backgrounds explain why they’ve decided to end their pregnancy.
This is not a choice made lightly by anyone involved, but the admirable, multilayered toughness of these sequences is unfortunately weakened by the filmmakers’ saccharine touch whenever they explore the doctors’ personal lives. Hard-nosed advocacy segues into lefty-evangelizing treacle as a cloying score accompanies a number of dewy scenes (Carhart raising horses, Hern helping his son with homework) better suited to a maudlin Oprah Winfrey special. As After Tiller’s more aesthetically unadorned sections show, Shane and Wilson needn’t have pushed so hard to sell their thesis that this is necessary work.
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