Over the weekend “After Tiller” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film depicts the aftermath of the death of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller was one of only five doctors in the US that performed late term abortions, a fact that led to his murder (in his own church no less) in 2009. Only four doctors remain, and “After Tiller” documents their struggles. Watching the film made me consider what I would have done if it had been me, eight or nine months pregnant with a child that would never be healthy and might not come out alive at all. It also had me considering the huge and problematic difference in treatment between women who choose to continue their doomed pregnancies and women who don’t. After all, both sets are losing babies.
The idea of a late term abortion is one of the most polarizing and controversial issues in the U.S. Even people who are otherwise pro-choice often draw the line at abortions performed after 25 weeks or so. The procedure is so abhorrent to some folks that the doctors who perform them are regularly harassed and threatened. Dr. Tiller’s murder was hardly the first time he had been in danger. He received almost constant death threats since he began his work in 1975. Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Healthcare Services in Wichita, Kansas, was firebombed in 1986 and in 1993 he was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion extremist. The other doctors who continue his work receive similar treatment.
“After Tiller” profiles doctors Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella, LeRoy Carhart and Warren Hern, the four remaining late-term abortion doctors in the U.S. today. Three of the four, Robinson, Carhart and Sella, are all former colleagues of Tiller. Dr. Hern has never worked with Tiller and still practices in his home state of Colorado. In order to continue Tiller’s legacy, his three former co-workers have moved out of Wichita to different practices all over the country. They believe that their work is of extreme importance. In the trailer we see a grim but dedicated Dr. Robinson exclaim “I can’t retire. There aren’t enough of us.” The film explores the separate motivations for their work and the difficulties that come with performing such a controversial procedure.
As I’ve mentioned before, I, like many of the anonymous mothers in the film, faced a doomed pregnancy. Unlike the moms in the film, the decision was made for me by my body – I went into an early labor before anyone realized I was having a placental abruption. If the condition had been discovered sooner, however, I would have faced a difficult decision; whether or not to terminate my potentially deadly pregnancy.
One in 100 pregnant women suffer from a placental abruption. Most cases are mild and require little or no attention, while others, like mine, are catastrophic and can lead to a stillborn child or the death of the mother. In my case the abruption was almost total. The prognosis for my son would never have been a bright one. I find that this fact both horrifies and comforts me, depending on what the discussion is. My prognosis would have been slightly better, because I was in a great hospital in NYC (in the U.S only 1 in 2,500 women die from this condition). In parts of the world with lower medical standards however, maternal death from severe placental abruption is extremely high.
Would I have terminated my pregnancy, knowing the prognosis? Probably. For the child I already had who needed her momma, for the children I had yet to have and for my husband and family who needed their wife, daughter, sister, friend. And yes, because I wanted and still want to live. Of course, if the prognosis for my son had been better, that decision might have been very different.