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'After Tiller' delves into complex lives of third-trimester abortion doctors

Photo courtesy Lana Wilson and Martha Shane.
Dr. Warren Hern meeting with a patient at his Boulder, Colo., clinic. From Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's 'After Tiller,' a documentary about the last four doctors in the US who provide third-trimester abortions.

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Since the assassination of Kansas doctor George Tiller in 2009, there are only four doctors in the United States who provide third-trimester abortions. A new documentary takes an intimate look into the complex lives of these doctors and their patients. "After Tiller," directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, will be screened at this years' True/False Film Fest in Columbia. 

Wilson said when she first heard news of Tiller's death -- he was shot in the foyer of the church he attended -- most of the coverage was full of polarizing politics. But it left her with several unanswered questions: Who was this man? Why would he do a job where he could be considered a target? Why would a woman need a third-trimester abortion? And who was left to carry on the work?

She teamed up with Martha Shane to find out. Together, they spent time getting to know the four doctors: LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson.

They were surprised to find out how complicated the doctors' thoughts were on the work they were doing. " They're not political zealots at all," Wilson said. 

They also got to know the patients, who had complicated stories of their own. 

One challenge of the film was deciding how to depict the anti-abortion protestors stationed outside the clinics. "We were really determined to make a film that was very intimately focused on the doctors and their patients," Shane said.  

The abortion debate is a big one, and you decided to steer clear of the debate end and take a more intimate approach, really getting at the 'why' behind it and at people's lives -- tell me a little bit more about what you learned through that intimacy.

Shane: "The abortion debate in this country has kind of become a shouting match, and the real-life situations and the decisions that women are making about whether or not to have a third-trimester abortion, and the decisions that these doctors are making about whether that's the right thing for a patient are really removed from the politics of the debate -- they're a completely a separate thing. And I think it's so -- one thing that we personally learned is it's so difficult to imagine the circumstances that, you know, these women are finding themselves in. Many of them had wanted pregnancies, and they discovered late in the pregnancy that there were devastating fetal anomalies, some of them were young women who just had no idea they were pregnant, or rape victims who were in denial. So, for people who are outside of that situation -- who aren't the doctors, or aren't the patients -- it's very difficult, I think, for them to imagine what it's like to be in those shoes.

And you also had to build a lot of trust with the doctors and the patients on the inside of the clinics. What was that process like?

Wilson: I think one of the major motivations for the doctors in agreeing to do the film was that we would include their patients in it ... They really helped us to get patients at the clinics to agree to be in the film. And what we would do is we would just say, you know, 'We're here to kind of show some of the reasons why women are seeking third-trimester abortions.' And a lot of patients didn't agree, for sure, but the few that did agree, I think, completely understood the importance of this project because they had just come from their communities, where, for whatever reason ... they're clearly pregnant, and they have to come home to their communities and explain what happened, and they understand the stigma, and the shame, and the secrecy around this better than anyone.

What do people need to know going into the film?

Wilson: I don't think they need to know anything, really. Because if anything, this is an issue where people have such strong beliefs one way or the other, and I think this movie makes you look at your own beliefs in a new way ... You're going to see the movie, and you're going to think very, very deeply about how you feel about this issue, and you'll be having an internal conversation -- a debate with yourself. You'll be thinking really hard, and feeling a lot of things you probably didn't expect.

Kellie Moore left KBIA in the spring of 2014.