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After Tiller: 40 Years Since Roe v. Wade, Abortion Providers Continue Work of Slain Kansas Doctor

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Forty years after the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion, the new documentary “After Tiller” follows the only four doctors left in the United States who are known to provide abortions in the third trimester. In 2009, their colleague, Dr. George Tiller, was assassinated while attending church in Wichita, Kansas. The four doctors depicted in the film have also braved threats, harassment and the emotional weight of the stories they hear to provide women with a desperately needed medical procedure. We’re joined by the directors of “After Tiller,” Lana Wilson and Martha Shane. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting live from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that established the right to abortion. A new poll coinciding with the anniversary shows a record 70 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. For the first time on record, a majority believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Despite the apparent shift in public opinion, abortion rights remain under siege. Last year saw U.S. states enact the second-highest number of anti-choice restrictions in history. Recent restrictions include a wave of state bans on abortion in later stages of pregnancy.

Here at the Sundance Film Festival, a remarkable new film follows four of the only doctors left in the United States who openly provide abortions in the third trimester. The film is called After Tiller. That’s after Dr. George Tiller, a man who performed third-trimester abortions despite constant threats and attacks from anti-choice extremists. Tiller’s clinic was firebombed in 1985. Eight years later, he survived an assassination attempt. Then, on May 31st, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by Scott Roeder while attending church in Wichita, Kansas. Tiller was 67 years old. The film After Tiller opens with the words of the late doctor.

DR. GEORGE TILLER: I would prefer, personally, to have a challenging, stimulating, emotionally and spiritually rewarding career that is short rather than have a long one that is filled with mediocrity, feeling as if you don’t make any difference to people.

SEDGWICK COUNTY 911: Sedgwick County 911.

CALLER: Yes, Dr. Tiller was just shot at Reformation Lutheran Church!

SEDGWICK COUNTY 911: What was that, ma’am?

CALLER: Somebody just came and shot somebody at our church!

AMY GOODMAN: That was part of the 911 call from the Sunday morning in 2009 when Dr. George Tiller was shot to death while he attended church. The film, After Tiller, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is about the colleagues he left behind. The four doctors depicted in the film have also braved threats, harassment, emotional weight of the stories they hear to provide women with a desperately needed medical procedure. We’re joined now by the directors of After Tiller, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lana, let’s start with you. Why did you make this film? What inspired you?

LANA WILSON: Well, it really came from watching the news coverage surrounding Dr. Tiller’s death. As you say, he survived an assassination attempt, and not only that, but he went back to work literally the next day. And I couldn’t believe that someone would go through such an experience and return to their job immediately. And the news coverage of this assassination was just a controversial doctor has been killed, getting a talking point from each side of the issue, and that was about it. So I found it really frustrating that the human element was left out here. I was really curious what motivated this man to go to such lengths to keep doing this work, why women would ever need a third-trimester abortion—I had no idea—and also, now that he was gone, was there someone waiting in the wings to take his place, or would they be scared away from doing this? What would happen next?

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about these doctors, Martha, that you follow.

MARTHA SHANE: The doctors are four really incredible individuals. I think one of the things that people really notice is that they’re all average, very average, Americans. Dr. Carhart is actually a registered Republican and religious. Dr. Hern is much more on the liberal side. But they’re very—there’s their range of personalities. And so, getting to know them, that’s really what struck us the most, is they’re just doctors who are incredibly dedicated to caring for these women despite the incredible risks.

AMY GOODMAN: There are only four, Lana, doctors who perform these third-trimester abortions?

LANA WILSON: Mm-hmm, yes, there are. I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Two of the doctors, the other two, worked directly with Dr. Tiller?

LANA WILSON: Three of them worked with Dr. Tiller. Dr. Carhart, Dr. Sella and Dr. Robinson were all trained by Dr. Tiller, and they all worked at his clinic in Kansas, alternating weeks. So they were left without a place to work after he was assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to one of those doctors, Dr. Shelley Sella, who works with Dr. Susan Robinson at the Southwestern Women’s Options clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Both, as you said, are former colleagues of Dr. Tiller. In this clip, you hear the voice of one of Dr. Sella’s patients, but first you hear Dr. Sella talking about her work.

DR. SHELLEY SELLA: I think about what I do all the time, and I recognize what I do. And at times I struggle, and at times I don’t. But I always come back to the woman and what she’s going through. And, often, what life will this—will this baby have? What will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities? It’s not just about being alive; it’s about life and what does it mean.

Thank you.

PATIENT: Ours is a corpus callosum. Obviously, if a baby didn’t get part of his brain, what outcome of that can impossibly be good? And ours has been guilt, because it’s guilt no matter which way you go. Guilt if you go ahead and do what we’re doing, or bring him into this world and then he doesn’t have any quality of life.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from After Tiller. Martha Shane, tell us about this couple. Tell us about the patients, the women, their partners, who come in. Who wants a third-trimester abortion?

MARTHA SHANE: Well, the women—I mean, the interesting thing is that these women never expected to find themselves in this situation, and they come from a huge range of backgrounds. But as you see in the film, a large percentage of them are actually women with planned pregnancies who find out late in the pregnancy that there’s something terribly wrong with the fetus. So, they’re really not only—not only going through this very difficult procedure, but also grieving the loss of their child.

And then there’s a lot of the cases are also maternal indications, which is where, for some reason, the woman was not able to get an abortion earlier in the pregnancy. Sometimes it’s a young woman who didn’t know that she was pregnant, didn’t recognize the signs. Sometimes it’s, you know, a rape victim who’s in denial about what happened to her. So, it’s a range of reasons, but these are really the most desperate situations.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Dr. Susan Robinson. In this scene in your film, After Tiller, a staff member has raised concerns about a young patient who seems to be having a hard time with her decision to have a third-trimester abortion. Dr. Robinson here talks with a staff member after she’s spoken with the patient.

DR. SUSAN ROBINSON: To me, she sounds completely clear. I mean, I said, “Look, of course you don’t want an abortion. Nobody wants an abortion. You have three choices: You can have a kid that you say you can’t take good care of; you can have a kid and give it to somebody else, who you know or don’t know; or you can have an abortion, which you think is the wrong thing to do. Those are your three choices. They all suck. But you have to pick one of them.” And she said, “I am committed.” She said, “I am committed,” three or four times. And I said, “So, you have struggled with this decision, and you’ve arrived at what you think is the best choice that you have available to you? And you feel bad about it. You regret it already. But you think it’s the best of your choices.” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Do you want me to go ahead with this?” And she said, “Yes.” And she said, “I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I’m committed.”


DR. SUSAN ROBINSON: Maybe she just couldn’t bring herself to say, “Yes, I want an abortion.”

AMY GOODMAN: That is Dr. Susan Robinson. Lana, talk about the dilemmas these doctors face. I mean, you’re talking about doctors agonizing, who have been doing this for decades.

LANA WILSON: Mm-hmm, yeah. You know, these women come to these doctors with incredibly complicated situations, very desperate ones. And the doctor’s job isn’t to be a moral arbiter. They’re a doctor. They’re there to see, “Can I help my patient?” looking at the patient’s safety and wellness, above all else. So, it’s hard because women come from such different places. And these doctors do have to decide: Can I help her? But I think what Dr. Robinson articulates so beautifully is that no one wants to be here. These women are not making this decision frivolously. And if she can help a patient safely, then that’s what she’ll do.

AMY GOODMAN: Martha, how did you have this very intimate access to these four doctors? I mean, you are filming in with them talking to their patients. Obviously, I assume, the patients gave permission, though you never show the patients’ faces.

MARTHA SHANE: Yeah, the doctors and the counselors were really our best allies in helping us find patients who were interested in sharing their stories. And they would explain to all the patients who came in, you know, “There are these filmmakers here, but they won’t film without your permission.” And the women who did participate really did so because they realize that people don’t understand why women seek third-trimester abortions, and they wanted to help clarify those reasons for everybody.

And I think the other—the other reason why we were able to get this access is just partially just being young female filmmakers. We were committed, and we told the doctors that we were committed to being totally unobtrusive in the clinics. We spent most of our time filming sort of pressed up against the walls, trying to be as invisible as possible. We didn’t want to ever disrupt the process that the patients and the doctors were going through. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did the doctors give you this access?

MARTHA SHANE: For the doctors, I think it was really about having a voice. They just—they know that they—that what’s missing from the abortion debate has been the voices of the people who are most intimately involved with this work. And they felt that—we were lucky that they trusted us to share their stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Lana, introduce us to Dr. Carhart. He has been pushed from clinic to clinic, from state to state. He started in Nebraska?

LANA WILSON: He started in Nebraska. He actually went to Nebraska because he was in the Air Force. He was in the Air Force for over 20 years. He opened a general practice there and never imagined he would become an abortion provider, and was introduced to abortion by a nurse friend of his who brought him into the clinic one day to hear the women’s stories. So that’s how he got started in this work.

AMY GOODMAN: So—but he had to leave Nebraska.

LANA WILSON: Yes. He’s now doing third-trimester abortions at a clinic in Maryland.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about that for a moment by going to a clip from this remarkable film, After Tiller. This is Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who now has this clinic in Germantown, Maryland. There, anti-choice activists targeted his landlord, Todd Stave, protesting outside Mr. Stave’s daughter’s middle school. This is Dr. Carhart commenting on what took place.

DR. LEROY CARHART: The thing with the school, it aggravated the owner enough that he got very, very—he took it really personally. And now, could Todd say tomorrow, “Move”? Yeah, then I’d have to move. And I think if we don’t fight back, it’s—it will go away. Abortion will not be available.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Carhart. Martha, talk about—I mean, there were protesters protesting the landlord’s—at the landlord’s daughter’s middle school?

MARTHA SHANE: Yes. That’s typical for—you know, one of the anti-abortion tactics is to try to prevent the doctor from having any place to practice. And Dr. Carhart was just incredibly lucky and smart in finding a clinic where the landlord was willing to stand up for him and for his right to continue to practice.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, not just willing, unbelievably—

MARTHA SHANE: Unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: —coincidentally, Mr. Stave’s father, wasn’t he an abortion provider, Lana?

LANA WILSON: Mm-hmm, he was.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the landlord.

LANA WILSON: This is the landlord’s father, was an abortion provider whose clinic had been firebombed. So, the landlord completely understood this. And that was a very rare and lucky circumstance for Dr. Carhart, because many other landlords would not nearly be so sympathetic. And, you know, who would want protesters outside their businesses all day, every day?

AMY GOODMAN: One of the focuses of After Tiller is the way the threats and attacks faced by abortion providers affect their personal lives. This is Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colorado, talking with his mother.

EDNA HERN: What they’ve had in the paper about abortion this last month, I think, stirs up people, much more. They don’t give it much thought until they start putting a lot of things in the paper like they have.

DR. WARREN HERN: Right. How many times have you received threatening phone calls because of what I do?

EDNA HERN: Oh, I don’t know.

DR. WARREN HERN: How many times, do you think?

EDNA HERN: I don’t know, Warren.


EDNA HERN: People call, and I just hang up. I just—you know, I can’t—

DR. WARREN HERN: But they call you.


DR. WARREN HERN: What do your friends say?

EDNA HERN: You know, I didn’t pay that much attention to it, Warren. I mean, you know, I thought you were doing what you felt like you needed to do. I mean, I would hope that one of these days that you feel you could enjoy the rest of your life.


EDNA HERN: I would like for you to be able to say, “OK, somebody else is going to do this. I’m going to go do my thing now.”


EDNA HERN: That’s what I would like.

DR. WARREN HERN: Yeah, good. If it were possible, that’s what I would do.

EDNA HERN: I understand.

DR. WARREN HERN: But getting somebody else who wants to come do this is very difficult, pretty close to impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colorado, talking with his mother. Martha Shane, Dr. Hern has faced serious pressure, and certainly after the assassination, the murder of Dr. Tiller, and we hear it with his conversation with his mother, yet he continues.

MARTHA SHANE: Yes. It’s really—it’s been—it’s really amazing just to see how dedicated these doctors are to this work. They never—Dr. Hern started doing abortions right after Roe v. Wade, and he never expected that the abortion debate and the controversy would continue for so long. So, I think what really has allowed him to keep going is, first, just incredible dedication to these patients, and then also having a family now that’s incredibly supportive of what he does. His wife is actually Cuban, and she’s a former abortion doctor herself, so she really understands what he’s going through.

AMY GOODMAN: Before his assassination in 2009, Dr. Tiller faced constant threats and incidents of violence and vandalism in the decades. His clinic was firebombed in 1985. In 1993, he survived an assassination attempt with gunshot wounds to both arms. Speaking to the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2008, he described the danger he faced and his determination to continue.

DR. GEORGE TILLER: It has been impressed on me that there are a lot of people in the United States that don’t like what we do. And this is what an office looks like when it’s been bombed at about midnight. Our response was and still continues to be, “Hell, no, we won’t go!” I put up $10,000 as a reward. Nobody ever collected on it. That was 1986.

We tried to get back to being a normal clinic, but we had to put up some gates and take other security arrangements. And again, I had my head in the sand. I’m taking care of people, one patient—you know, we were trying to make the world a better place to live, one woman at a time. And I said, “No, this stuff isn’t going to happen again in Wichita.” Well, I was wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Tiller, 2009. Again, he was assassinated. But, Lana, the state crackdowns that we’re seeing now and the tremendous pressure on these doctors, like Dr. Carhart, who worked with Dr. Tiller, his horse barn was burned down. Seventeen of his horses died in the fire. So the violence, and then the laws changing.

LANA WILSON: Mm-hmm, yeah. You know, the laws changing, what they’re really doing is, yes, abortion and contraception are legal, but so many states are putting restrictions into place, like the law that drove Dr. Carhart out of Nebraska, which is now being copied by many other states, that abortion is in fact not accessible to many women. So, it doesn’t really matter if it’s legal if it isn’t accessible, and if women at a younger age aren’t educated about contraception and sex education. And I think that’s what we have to look at, moving forward, are these larger issues preventing access.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for this film. Lana Wilson and Martha Shane, they are the filmmakers who made After Tiller, that premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival on this 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go back and then go forward. We go back 50 years to a Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a right of everyone in the United States to a lawyer in criminal cases. What does that mean today? We follow a group of young, dedicated lawyers in the Deep South fighting to defend those who can’t afford to hire their own lawyer. Stay with us.

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