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Originally published Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 3:08 PM

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‘After Tiller’: true stories behind painful choices

A review of “After Tiller,” a calm, thoughtful documentary about an incendiary subject: late-term abortion.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘After Tiller,’ a documentary directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson. 87 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving abortion, and brief strong language. SIFF Film Center.

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In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed while attending church services in his hometown of Wichita, Kan. Tiller, who performed late-term abortions among other services at his clinic, had long been a target of anti-abortion activists. “After Tiller,” a documentary filmed four years after his death, profiles the four remaining doctors in the U.S. who will perform late-term abortions, three of whom worked with Tiller.

It’s a calm, thoughtful film about an incendiary subject, and it has a clear point of view: to allow these doctors (and some of their patients, who we hear but don’t see) to explain why they do what they do. We learn that late-term abortion, defined as taking place after about the 25th week of pregnancy, accounts for less than 1 percent of all abortions; and we meet devastated couples who are facing that option after learning (through tests results discovered in late pregnancy) that their baby has terrible abnormalities that would unquestionably result in a short and painful life. We hear the voices of a rape victim long in denial about her pregnancy; an anti-abortion 16-year-old furious with herself, but seeking a late-term abortion; a struggling mother of two overwhelmed by the possibility of another child.

It’s a range of stories, some more sympathetic than others, and “After Tiller” will provide food for thought for those on both sides of the abortion debate, as long as they’re willing to listen. All of the doctors, whose families we also meet, come across as caring and thoughtful, and some freely admit to having struggled with what they do. (Dr. Susan Robinson, in particular, candidly discusses how some patients have more appealing narratives — but, she wonders, should she pick and choose who she helps based on who has a better story?)

“This is not a subject that is easy,” says Dr. Warren Hern, now 74 and still determined to keep practicing. “People can disagree.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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