Understanding the Doctors Who Perform Late-Term Abortions and the Women who Get Them

Dr. Warren Hern meeting with a patient at his Boulder, Colorado clinic.

September 14, 2013

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In the United States, Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of late-term abortions—abortions after the 25th week of pregnancy. A 2013 Gallup poll found that while 61% of people in the U.S. believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, only 14 percent believe that abortion should be legal in the last three months.

A new documentary that premiered at Sundance is shining a light on late-term abortion, which account for fewer than 1 percent of all abortions in the U.S. Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, After Tiller follows the only four doctors in the U.S. who openly provide these third-trimester abortions. The film paints a picture of their daily lives, which often start with walking past anti-abortion protesters to enter their offices and end with the time they spend with their loving families. In between, the documentary shows them interacting with their patients, who come to seek late-term abortions for a variety of reasons, from finding out a child would be born with extreme deficiencies to being in denial about a pregnancy after being raped.

Throughout the documentary, the doctors face a myriad of obstacles, including moral dilemmas at work and danger in their personal lives. One doctor is even forced to move to Maryland after the Nebraska state legislature passes a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.

While Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, it allowed states to ban abortions in the third-trimester, with exceptions for the life or health of the woman. Only nine states allow third-trimester abortions without legal constrictions, which continue to grow rapidly nationwide. Over the past three years, nine states have passed a 20-week abortion ban.

Martha Shane and Lana Wilson recently discussed their film with AlterNet.

Alyssa Figueroa: Where did the idea to make a documentary on late-term abortion come from?

Lana Wilson: It came from watching the news coverage of Dr. [George] Tiller’s death in 2009. It was such a shocking event, but I remember being frustrated the way it was covered by the news. I mean they would just say, “A controversial doctor has been killed.” And then they would get a talking point from each side of the issue and that was about it. And there were just all these questions I had that weren’t being answered at all by any of the media. For instance, how crazy was it that this guy was killed in church? He was a religious Christian? That was surprising to me — that the number-one man behind this abortion movement was this religious Christian who had been going to church for almost 30 years with his family.

And then wondering, why would you do a job anyway where people are shooting at you and trying to kill you? I did learn from the news coverage that he had been shot once before in the ’90s, and he had gone right back to work the next day, which just seemed insane. So I was wondering why anyone would do that? Why would they put themselves in the line of fire for a job, especially a job that most people don’t understand or support?

And then wondering, why would you get a late-term abortion anyway? I hadn’t any idea why you would before I started this.

And then finally, now that Dr. Tiller is gone, are there any people left that will take his place? Are there other doctors waiting in the wings? Or will they be scared away by this? Or what will happen now?

So it was just curiosity and a series of questions that didn’t come out of ideology really, but all these personal questions, and that’s initially where it came from.

Copyright: AlterNet