Documentary Film
7:50 am
Wed November 20, 2013

'After Tiller' Seeks To Turn Down Volume On Abortion Debate

Dr. Susan Robinson in a scene from 'After Tiller'
Dr. Susan Robinson in a scene from 'After Tiller'
Credit rottentomatoes.com

The Sundance Film Festival selection After Tiller follows the lives and work of the only four doctors left in the country who still perform third-trimester abortions, after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009. The Tallgrass Film Association is presenting a special screening of the movie at 7:30 at the Orpheum Theater.

Dr. George Tiller operated his Women’s Health Care Services clinic in Wichita for decades, and was one of the rare doctors in the United States who performed controversial third-trimester abortions. On a Sunday morning in May of 2009 at the Reformation Lutheran Church, Tiller was serving as an usher when Scott Roeder walked up and shot him in the head.

Since then, the debate and the news coverage of abortion, and especially third trimester abortion, has continued to be contentious and angry on all sides. In After Tiller, we see a different, more controlled approach to the subject. Filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson let us peek into the clinics and into the lives of both the doctors who perform the procedures and the women who come to seek them.

"We felt that one way to reframe the conversation was rather than focusing on the politics and having politicians or activists giving talking points, that by focusing on the doctors and the patients that are at the center of this storm who are also the ones who are least heard from in this debate," Shane says. "By focusing on them, that that in and of itself would change the tone."

Her co-director, Lana Wilson, says the doctors understood the film could help people get a better idea of their work, and why they do that work.

"They thought, 'you know what, the only way anyone’s ever going to understand why we do this work is if they meet us, and meet our patients, that’s the only chance we have,'" Wilson says.

Wilson and Shane are participating in a panel discussion following tonight’s screening of their film. Also on the panel is local doctor Scott Stringfield. He’s the associate director of Via Christi’s family medicine residency program. He’s also Medical Director at Choices Medical Clinic, a crisis pregnancy clinic that offers medical care and support for women to carry babies to term, but not abortion services. Stringfield thinks After Tiller is one-sided.

"There’s no doubt, they shined light on the situation, to what is very hidden, and for the most part unknown by the community as a whole... and I think they did indeed show the more personal side of those individuals. I do believe, however, that it would be really nice if they did the same for the physicians on the other side," Stringfield says.

Stringfield’s views probably couldn’t be further from the doctors profiled in After Tiller. Still, in his position at Choices, he sees plenty of people each day who are dealing with circumstances similar to what’s shown in the movie.

"I think at the end I thought, man, what a bunch of wounded people," Stringfield says. "Not only were the women who have had the abortions, and the struggle they’re in now, which I’ve seen often in my experience in medicine, then there were the women who were considering abortion and were struggling with the guilt and the dilemma they faced with that, and then even the staff of the abortion providers and the abortion providers themselves."

Though many see the abortion debate as a black and white issue, director Lana Wilson says it is grayer than most people think. And she says the film is not shy about showing what might be morally ambiguous situations, challenging the audience to confront their own preconceptions.

"It’s very complex and nuanced and grey, and letting the doctors talk about that and seeing that these patients are struggling with the decisions that they’re making, was how we felt we could also avoid that back and forth between two sides, because there are different points of view all represented within the clinic walls, too," Wilson says.

Both Martha Shane and Lana Wilson say they’ve been impressed by the civility of the conversations they’ve had at screenings of After Tiller, from people on all sides of the abortion debate. And they say they’re optimistic that bringing the movie to Wichita will help continue a calm, thoughtful discussion of this deeply difficult topic.

A panel discussion follows the screening with co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, Dr. Stringfield, and Julie Burkhart, founder and director of South Wind Women’s Center, which is housed in Dr. Tiller’s former clinic.