Remembering Dr. Tiller: Creating Safe Spaces for Abortion Providers and Patients

7 Jun

Four years ago last week, Dr. Tiller was murdered while ushering at his church in Wichita, KS. Dr. Tiller was most well known for providing abortions after 24 weeks for patients who couldn’t be seen elsewhere; his clinic was one of the only places in the country where people who needed abortions in the third trimester could go to receive safe abortion care.

What’s happened to the landscape of later abortion care since Dr. Tiller’s murder? In a political environment where some states are trying to restrict abortions at 12 weeks, it’s no surprise that there are now only two states where it’s legal to obtain an abortion after 26 weeks. Who are the clinicians providing this care? What are their stories?

The movie After Tiller attempts to answer this question by profiling four abortion providers–Dr. Leroy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Shelly Sulla, and Dr. Susan Robinson–who’ve pledged to carry on Dr. Tiller’s work of providing later abortion care. The movie is beautiful both in aesthetics and in spirit. We see each provider grapple with the moral complexity that sometimes comes with providing abortion care, and yet the movie isn’t really about whether abortion is right or wrong, but rather how these clinicians treat their patients. We see them comfort and coach their patients through heart-wrenching circumstances, even providing patients with language to help explain their pregnancy loss to family and friends. We see them talk openly about their own moral struggles in performing later abortions, how they decide if they’re able to perform an abortion for someone, and what happens in the circumstances where they cannot. We see them emphasize time and again that they believe that women can struggle with complex moral and ethical issues, including a ending a pregnancy in the third trimester.

While watching the film, I kept waiting to hear more from patients. All we see of them throughout the movie is their clasped hands or messy ponytails. We hear their shaky voices, but we never see their faces. I can imagine that Martha and Lana, the film directors, probably asked patients if they wanted to be filmed head on, and they declined. They have every right to do so. When you take into consideration the risks involved in putting a public face to later abortion—possible community condemnation, judgment from friends and family, not to mention harassment from anti-abortion activists—it makes sense to keep a low profile. In a cultural context where abortion even in the first trimester is so stigmatized, it makes sense that a family pursuing an abortion in the third trimester wouldn’t want their experience or their faces to be made public.

Yet this disappearance of the full selves of patients makes me uneasy. It gives the impression that these patients were victims, and that doctors were their saviors. These wonderful, brave doctors got to have faces, full stories, moral complexity. Patients didn’t even have names. I don’t think the filmmakers intentionally created this dichotomy. Of course, with all the rampant negative stereotypes about abortion providers, “savior” may be a welcome label. Yet it doesn’t leave room for these physicians to be just that—doctors who are following their conscience and taking care of their patients.

Maybe I am asking for too much. Abortion providers, especially providers of abortion in the second and third trimester, are frequently victims themselves of vicious anti-abortion smear campaigns, not to mention under the near-constant threat of violence. This film is explicitly about showing the compassion and empathy inherent in providing abortion care, particularly later abortion care, and it does a remarkable job. Perhaps it’s not the right space to tilt the camera up and allow patients the same room to talk about empathy and compassion in ending their pregnancies. As I watched the movie I found myself wondering what other abortion providers would think. Do they think of themselves as “saving” their patients? Do these four providers in the film think of themselves as heroes? In fact, on a panel with the four profiled providers after the movie, one of them explicitly said that she doesn’t like being referred to that way.

There’s no doubt in my mind that After Tiller is a significant film. Everyone who can see it should. It lets the audience go behind the curtain of the political debate on abortion and into the realm of personal experience. I hope we can continue to explore personal experiences with later abortion care, and find ways to include the voices of people who obtain abortions, too. Dr. Tiller said that he was a “woman-educated physician.” I’d like to think that part of honoring his memory is figuring out how address the risks of sharing personal experiences with abortion so that the people who educated him can educate us, too.

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