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‘After Tiller’: Empathy for docs with an abortion specialty


Oscilloscope Laboratories presents a film directed by Lana Wilson and Martha Shane. Running time: 88 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving abortion, and brief strong language). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

After a Christian terrorist assassinated Dr. George Tiller in 2009 — someone tweeted “God bless the gunman”— there were four remaining physicians known to perform third-trimester abortions in America. In “After Tiller,” co-directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane interview them at their clinics in Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico.

The ethical considerations of these physicians and their patients is the focus, not the pro-lifers and their death threats. The doctors live knowing they are targets like Tiller, who was shot in the head at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan.

“I loved delivering babies. I thought it was wonderful,” relates Dr. Warren Hearn. But now he specializes in legal third-trimester procedures (after the 25th week). A decisive factor is the diagnosis of the fetus. “What will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities?” asks Dr. Shelley Sella.

During a sonogram exam, Dr. LeRoy Carhart tells a woman, “You’re welcome to watch or not watch anything. You’re gonna see what you want to see.” No abortion is shown. But semantics matter. One doctor explains she does not use the term “fetus” since the procedure, which accounts for about 1 percent of all abortions, entails the “birth” of a “baby” after she “euthanizes” him or her. Her words.

How women describe their plight can affect a doctor’s decision to proceed. “What if you’re just not a good storyteller?” ponders Dr. Susan Robinson. Wilson and Shay tell that story with judicious empathy.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago freelance writer.

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