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.
Despite that the women in “After Tilller” are all anonymous, you can see their hands and bodies. You can see their fidgeting, anxiety and hand wringing. All of them are obviously reluctant, but seem to understand that what they are doing is best for their babies and their families. The doctors are stoic but supportive; offering tissues and words of encouragement. I find it striking that Dr. Sellas gave one grieving mom very similar advice to what my doctor told me when people about the pregnancy :
“The baby was sick. We went for testing. The baby didn’t make it. It’s hard for me to talk about it right now.”
So much of these women’s experiences are similar to mine, though ultimately the decision was not mine to make as it is with these moms. The exchanges between these women and their doctors are moving and gut wrenching and I found this inside glance into this oft maligned and rarely spoken about decision making process fascinating and heartbreaking. The loss these women experienced is no different than mine. No one wants to get an abortion, as we see Sellas say in the film. Sometimes it’s just the best and most humane decision one can make. Which makes the legality of third-term abortions vital.
There is another story of child-loss making the rounds on the internet this week. I’m sure many of you have seen the touching post by blogger Jessica Nelles. She speaks about her previous stillbirth and child loss in simple sentences, each beginning with the phrase “I am strong because…” She then goes on to talk about her living daughter, who she calls (as many so-called “baby loss mamas” call their living children) her “rainbow baby,” because she is the “rainbow that came after the storm.” It quickly became viral, and in the comments on the various sites where it’s been posted, there is a plethora of support. Not just of her strength and perseverance, but because of her decision to continue her pregnancy after her second son’s possibly grim prognosis.
What struck me is the lack of support for women who choose the opposite. Women who choose to continue pregnancies that yield stillborn babies or babies that will live only a few hours and have a low quality of life are lauded as saints, whereas women who choose to terminate these troubled pregnancies get death threats. There is no middle ground, it seems.
“After Tiller” didn’t focus on the political but instead this highly personal aspect, which I think might be the best way to discuss the issue.
I am very relieved that I didn’t have to make this decision. It wasn’t an easy one for the women in the film to make, and I can’t imagine that it would have been easier for me. I think the most vital thing to keep in mind is the phrase that kept coming up after Dr. Tiller’s murder; Trust Women. Beyond the religious aspects (which, in my opinion, shouldn’t be a consideration when it comes to legislature) and the political, these are women’s lives we’re talking about. It’s their families and THEIR babies they are losing. We need to leave the decision up to them and the doctors they trust to help them.
Here come the trolls! I think this charmer created a Twitter account just for me! I guess I should be honored.