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After Tiller: A story in three parts

A new documentary looks at third-trimester abortion



Roe v. Wade legalized abortion everywhere in the U.S. up to the point at which the fetus is viable outside the womb, but determining when this transformation actually takes place is up to the states. Forty-one states place prohibitions on abortion at some point in the pregnancy, meaning late-term abortions come with substantial caveats and requirements; eight states have banned abortions after 20 or 22 weeks. Of all abortions, fewer than 1 percent take place in the third trimester. Another statistic: the percentage of Americans who think third-trimester abortions should be legal is around 14 percent, quite small compared to those who think that second- and first-trimester abortions should be legal (27 and 61 percent respectively).

Only four doctors in the U.S. perform third-trimester abortions, and all of them are prominently featured in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's new documentary, After Tiller, screening through Thursday at Music Box. Shelley Sella, who works at a clinic in Albuquerque, wonders aloud why she has the power to hear a woman's story and decide whether it merits this rare procedure, which is almost always devastating, in one way or another, for the mother. "What if she's not a good storyteller?" muses Sella.

I have heard this question posed many times in debates over abortion, but never phrased with such urgency. More often than not, the burden of proof is placed on the mother; the abortion is hers to justify, and maybe she can do so if the facts support her. Depending on her listener's clemency, such facts may include her inability to support a child emotionally or financially, a pregnancy that began in rape or threatens the life of the mother, or a child with fatal birth defects. But one hardly ever thinks about the manner in which the story is told, and to whom.

"A story has no beginning or end," wrote novelist Graham Greene in The End of the Affair. "Arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." Greene is right in one sense: a storyteller must always select her bookends, whether consciously or not; such a decision is never inherent to the story itself. But such a process can never be arbitrary. Where we start a story or end it constitutes a large part of its telling; as any playwright or documentarian will tell you, form can impart motives, values, and struggle as much as content does. In fact a story hardly ends with its telling, because it might be further modified, supplemented, and even misunderstood by its listener. Sella's question, therefore, might be extended to the movie's audience, charging us with a direct ethical obligation to hear these women's stories.

After Tiller, as its title suggests, begins with Dr. George Tiller, who headed a women's health clinic in Wichita, Kansas, and performed late-term abortions until he was gunned down during a church service by an antiabortion activist on March 31, 2009. From the beginning, then, Shane and Wilson frame the late-term abortion issue as a fight between abortion doctors and evangelical wing nuts. Stories and threats of violence abound: LeRoy Carhart, who moves his clinic from Nebraska to Maryland in the course of the film, recounts how terrorists burned his family's stable to the ground, killing all but three of their horses. Warren Hern, who's based in Boulder, Colorado, asks his mother, a gritty old woman who inches around her house, how often she receives threatening phone calls. She replies that she doesn't know; she's so used to it that she just hangs up.

As the public-opinion polls cited above indicate, what we're dealing with is a massive rejection of the late-abortion narrative as it's been told so far. After Tiller provides heartbreaking scenes of women reviewing painful options with their doctors, valuable insights into the doctors' personal lives, and shocking glimpses of the prayer circles outside the clinics. But as I watched the documentary, I found myself hungering for more stories, different stories; Shane and Wilson never actively engage the debate over late-term abortions that's taking place inside the pro-choice movement.

This is ironic because After Tiller is playing in little more than a dozen theaters across the U.S., most of them in cities with strong progressive communities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. Shane and Wilson may, at times, forget their audience, but they never surrender the crux of their argument, that the struggle over abortion has been, and will continue to be, fought through stories. After Tiller delves into the politics of language and narrative, reminding us that, when it comes to third-term abortions, time, place, phrasing, and the individual all matter.

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