Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas in May 2009, there are only four American doctors who openly provide third-trimester abortions. After Tiller paints a complex, compassionate portrait of these physicians, who have become the new number-one targets of the anti-abortion movement, yet continue to risk their lives every day to do work that many believe is murder, but which they believe is profoundly important for their patients’ lives. The film weaves together in-depth interviews with the doctors with intimate vérité scenes from their lives and inside their clinics, where they counsel and care for their anxious, vulnerable patients at an important crossroads in their lives. By sharing the moving stories of several of these patients, After Tiller illuminates the experiences of women who seek late abortions.
The film’s campaign has shifted coverage of third-trimester abortion from abstract debate to a concrete focus on the rationale of doctors and patients. More medical students are engaging their universities in discussions about abortion care training, and the clinics featured in the film and their allies have received letters of support. The film was used to rally volunteers to fight an Albuquerque ballot measure, which would have severely decreased access to third-trimester abortions if it passed.
- Directors/Producers: Lana Wilson, Martha Shane
- Executive Producers: Regina Kulik Scully, Diane Max
- Impact producers and researchers: Film Presence; Film Sprout; University of California, San Francisco
Artemis Media Ventures, Belle Max Productions, Chicken & Egg Pictures’ Mother Wit Human Rights Fund, Educational Foundation of America, International Documentary Association’s Pare Lorentz Fund, Lebowitz Family Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, Nirvana Manana Institute, Puffin Foundation, Sarah Jacobson Film Grant, Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, Valdimir and Araxia Buckhantz Foundation, Oma Fund of the Ms. Foundation, Bertha BRITDOC Foundation, plus several private donors.
Key funder: The Fledgling Fund
The filmmakers write:
“We checked in regularly with Emily Verellen at the Fledgling Fund, who helped us to make decisions about how to spend our funds in a way that would have the greatest possible impact. Because we were working with a distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, Emily also helped us determine how best to handle that collaboration, and how to make sure that our outreach and audience engagement campaign was in alignment with Oscilloscope’s theatrical release strategy. Overall, the Fledgling Fund was a crucial source of support and guidance throughout the release process.”
- Production: $436,862
- Outreach and Distribution: $85,000
With After Tiller, the production team aims to:
- Spark a national conversation about late abortion in a way that brings more light, rather than more heat, to the issue.
- Educate Americans, particularly in states where legislation banning abortions after twenty weeks has passed or has been introduced, about the reasons why women seek this procedure.
- Change public perception of third-trimester abortion providers by building a movement dedicated to supporting their right to work with a special focus on maintaining their safety.
- Encourage dialogue about this complicated issue among audience members with varying political and personal beliefs
U.S.—although the film is gaining traction in locations where abortion is controversial, such as Ireland and Mexico
The production team designed the outreach campaign to focus on medical students, pro-choice individuals who do not support late abortion rights, people in states where 20-week bans have passed or are in danger of passing, and Americans under 30 (the demographic in which support for abortion rights is dropping the fastest.)
Outreach partners include NARAL, local chapters of Planned Parenthood, Medical Students for Choice (MS4C), Nursing Students for Choice, numerous state-based abortion access funds and networks, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Backline, Exhale, Physicians for Reproductive Choice, local chapters of the National Organization for Women, and many more.
How the Campaign Works
The filmmakers hope that viewers absorb several key pieces of information: the motivations of the doctors who provide late abortions; the reasons why women seek late abortions; the lack of access to abortion, particularly later abortions, throughout this country, and the problem of violence against abortion providers, clinic workers, and clinics
The filmmakers note that effective steps they took to move the campaign forward included:
- hiring Film Presence to formulate strategy for engaging relevant groups, offering discounts and special screenings;
- partnering with key groups to use screenings as fundraisers;
- partnering with MS4C chapters nationwide to organize groups of medical students to attend theatrical screenings in their cities and at med schools, and place film in university libraries;
- involving the doctors in media and outreach efforts and screenings.
- Researchers from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), part of the Bixy Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco, are currently conducting two separate analyses of the film. The first analyzes the media surrounding the film’s release, discovering that the nuanced way in which the film is discussed, as well as the focus on doctors and patients rather than the abstract philosophical discussions, differs significantly from the media that previously surrounded this issue. The second is an in-depth qualitative analysis of film viewers’ responses to the film, and its impact on their thoughts and feelings around third-trimester abortion.
The After Tiller campaign is midstream: the production team has released both the educational and commercial DVD, and the film will be broadcast on the PBS series POV this fall.
Change in Awareness
The filmmakers estimate that thousands of people now have an increased awareness of this issue.
- Premiere: Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
- The film opened in 45 US cities, 7 UK cities, and 2 Canadian cities.
- Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sarasota Film Festival
- The Kathleen Bryant Edwards Award for Human Rights at the Full Frame Film Festival
Researchers form University of California, San Francisco recruited 50 audience members from 7 screening locations and interviewed them 5-20 weeks after the screening to assess whether and how viewing changed their thoughts and feelings about third-trimester abortion and third-trimester abortion providers. Preliminary analyses suggest that the film did encourage viewers to think more deeply and empathetically about third-trimester abortion, and to feel more strongly about legal protections for those procedures.
Filmmakers don’t have exact numbers, but place screening numbers in the thousands, and predict at least the tens of thousands as the screenings continue.
- Social media platforms:
- Facebook—2,570 likes as of early May
- Twitter—1,396 followers as of early May
- Online distribution platforms: iTunes, cable VOD
Notable online responses:
The production team reports an outpouring of support and admiration for the four doctors who are featured in the film, increased sharing of facts relating to late abortion (including that these abortions comprise less than 1% of all abortions, and that only four doctors in America openly perform them), and increased online conversation regarding the growing number of states with 20-week abortion bans, and encouraging people who support such bans to see After Tiller. A Kickstarter campaign for the film launched the production in 2009, and the filmmakers have kept in touch with Kickstarter supporters ever since.
Key Press Mentions:
The New York Times, The Nation, MSNBC and others
Change in Behavior
- For all screenings, the production team has asked people to go home and discuss the film and/or the issue with five people who are close to them, who might have similar or different views
- For screenings in places where 20-week abortion bans had been proposed or passed, filmmakers asked people to contact their legislatures and share their feelings about the bans.
- Audience members are also encouraged to request a screening on the film’s website.
- Medical students are provided with an addendum to the educational guide, which encouraged them to ask their school to include abortion care training in the curriculum.
The filmmakers say that audience members are seeking information about how to become clinic escorts, and expressing increased support from the general public for the work that the doctors are doing, as evidenced by phone calls and letters received at all of the clinics featured. They report anecdotally: “numerous individuals–both pro-choice and anti-choice–come up to us after screenings, thanking us for making the film, and telling us that this issue is so much more complicated than they ever imagined,” with “even anti-choice people saying that now, with their new understanding from the film, they can understand why a woman would seek a late abortion in certain situations. So, there seems to be a significant increase in empathy and support for abortion rights as a result of the film, even among those who consider themselves opposed to abortion.” The production team also cites an increase in medical students seeking to engage their universities in discussion about abortion care training.
For the most part, the film was created to increase awareness, not to have a specific political impact. However:
- The film was screened on Capitol Hill for congressional staffers, with the goal of ultimately affecting votes related to abortion rights
- During the film’s theatrical release in San Francisco, filmmakers used screenings to engage audience members in a conversation about the proposed 20-week abortion ban in Albuquerque, which would have prevented two of the film’s doctors from working, and severely decreased access to late abortion in this country.
Ultimately, those conversations and “ask” for help in opposing the ban led to over ten thousand dollars being raised to support the Respect ABQ Women campaign, which fought the ban, and led to an influx of volunteers from San Francisco into Albuquerque during the crucial final weeks of the campaign. The ballot measure was defeated.
The filmmakers do not have corporate targets, as this is not relevant to their topic.
After Tiller has become a resource for partner organizations to rally support, raise funds, and encourage more nuanced dialogue about a hot-button issue:
- Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, said: “NARAL Pro-Choice America has shown this film to thousands of our member activists all over the country, from South Dakota to New Hampshire, to spark conversations about the critical importance of protecting reproductive freedom and access to abortion services.”
- Through fundraising screenings, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for the Trust Women Foundation and other abortion rights groups to support abortion access and to support the defeat of the ballot initiative in Albuquerque.