In the more than five years I’ve been active in the reproductive rights movement, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince anti-choice folks to support abortion rights. For awhile it was my job since I worked in communications. More generally, I think it’s just because I’m a self-righteous writer–I strongly believe in the morality of the pro-choice position and I’m convinced that if I can just communicate that well enough, people who disagree will come around. Basically, I’m like Walt in Breaking Bad: “I truly believe there exists some combination of words–there must exist certain words in a certain specific order that can explain all of this.”
In that quest, I’ve come to put a lot of faith in the power of personal abortion stories to change minds. As I’ve written before, I think these stories are so important not necessarily because they can garner empathy for individuals who’ve had abortions but simply because collectively they can show that “shit’s complicated.“ In fact, “shit’s complicated” has become something of my feminist mantra on a whole range of issues.
It’s a sentiment echoed–less profanely–in the director’s statement for After Tiller, the new documentary about the four remaining third-trimester abortion providers in the US. “Reality is complicated,” write directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson. And indeed this film more effectively and movingly portrays just how complication it is when it comes to abortion than anything I’ve seen recently. Shane and Wilson got amazing access to the doctors and their patients and for the most part let them speak for themselves, interspersing their words with newsreel footage showing the heated political environment surrounding late-term abortion.
The film’s power, for me, came from the stark contrast between the emotional and moral complexity of women’s stories–as well the thoughtful reflections of the doctors–and the black-and-white rhetoric of the anti-choice protestors and politicians. On the one hand, you see a pregnant woman who is aborting a wanted baby with a lethal fetal anomaly explain that “there’s guilt no matter which way you go.” On the other, you see protestors at a march waving “I regret my abortion” signs. There’s Dr. Warren Hern hugging a patient while she sobs into his shoulder for a full two minutes and there are the anti-choice sidewalk counselors offering prayers. There’s Dr. Shelley Sella speaking candidly talking about how she does this work even though she does view the fetuses she aborts as babies. And then there are media talking heads denouncing “baby killers.”
To be fair, the documentary is focused mostly on the providers, not the pro-life movement. There are no doubt some anti-choicers who also grapple to the complexity of the issue–who, for example, acknowledge that it is not at all self-evident why it should be morally preferable to carry a pregnancy to term if the baby will just have a short and painful life–but overall being consistently anti-choice demands a certain kind of binary thinking. And in order to adhere to that kind of thinking, you’ve got to willfully ignore the complexity of the real world and actual people’s lives. Ironically, to be “pro-life,” you have to conveniently forget that life comes from life, and that life is often messy.
After Tiller opened in a bunch of cities this past weekend–find out where it’s playing near you.
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing. She’s thankful her abortion was not nearly as difficult as those featured in After Tiller.