WASHINGTON (BP) — The premiere on America’s public television stations of a documentary about late-term abortion doctors has prompted concerns and criticisms from pro-life advocates.
On Sept. 1, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) telecast “After Tiller,” a 2013 movie about the only four doctors who openly perform third-trimester abortions in the United States. The nearly 90-minute film is available for viewing online at the PBS website through Oct. 1.
Point of View (POV), the PBS program showing “After Tiller,” describes the film as “a deeply humanizing and probing portrait” of the four in the wake of the 2009 shooting death of George Tiller, who had been America’s best known, late-term abortion provider.
Some pro-life organizations and individuals criticized the film as propaganda for abortion rights and called before its premiere for PBS to cancel it. Others urged PBS to show a pro-life documentary to provide balance.
Some Southern Baptists were among those responding to the controversy.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said “After Tiller” provides a reminder of the consequences of and solution for sin.
“PBS claims to have ‘humanized’ these doctors with this documentary,” Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press. “Indeed, they are human. This documentary shows us once again that humanity is fallen, violent, and — apart from Christ — lost.”
The movie “ought to remind us of what’s at stake: innocent human lives and guilty human consciences,” he said. “The Gospel addresses both; and so must we.”
Skeet Workman, longtime Texas Southern Baptist and former trustee with the ERLC, expressed her objections after watching the PBS premiere on a local public TV station affiliated with Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Workman shared her concerns in an email to Mickey Long, chairman of Texas Tech’s board of regents.
“It was a very bad film and made Dr. Tiller a ‘hero’ for his abortions,” wrote Workman, a Tech graduate whose father and husband both have served on the school’s board of regents. “It was so biased. The four remaining late term [abortion doctors] were also promoted throughout the film.”
She and others appealed to the manager of Tech’s public station in advance, Workman told Long. The manager approved the program for airing, which Workman described as an “unwise decision.” Workman reported the manager later decided not to show the movie the other two times for which it was scheduled.
Many PBS stations did not telecast “After Tiller” or showed it at another time, network ombudsman Michael Getler reported Thursday (Sept. 4).
The early reports show the film aired in about 48 percent of the 50 major markets in the country, and about one-fourth of those stations showed it “later at night, after primetime and after the time it was made available,” Getler wrote. In addition, no public stations telecast the program in 10 states, at least on Sept. 1, he said.
He has received more than 850 emails and phone calls about “After Tiller,” most in opposition, Getler said.
In his lengthy analysis of the film and the reaction to it, Getler acknowledged it had a point of view. He called the focus on the doctors and their lives “a worthwhile public service undertaking involving a very rare look at a controversial and emotional, but legal, practice.”
Getler said, however, the examination of the late-term abortion providers, “would have benefitted from at least a few minutes of calm, thoughtful exploration of the opposition view.”
The airing of a film with a sympathetic perspective toward late-term abortion providers on a public television system that receives government funding is another controversy in the lengthy debate over a procedure legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court in 1973. While most abortions are performed early in pregnancy, many observers credit the publicity surrounding a late-term abortion procedure with helping American public opinion move in a pro-life direction in recent years.
The method known as partial-birth abortion first came to public attention in the mid-1990s. Diagrams depicting the procedure appeared to sensitize many to the humanity of the unborn child. The ERLC and other pro-life organizations worked for years in support of a legislative ban on the procedure. The federal government finally prohibited the procedure when President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2003 after two previous bills were vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
While the partial-birth method is forbidden, abortion providers now use other means to end the lives of unborn babies late in pregnancy.
The four doctors featured in “After Tiller” all were colleagues of Tiller before he was killed by an anti-abortion extremist who now is serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder. The country’s major pro-life organizations condemned Tiller’s slaying. Tiller’s abortion business in Wichita was a major reason Kansas was described at the time as “the late-term abortion capital of America.”
The doctors and the locations of the clinics where they perform third-trimester abortions are: LeRoy Carhart in Germantown, Md.; Warren Hern in Boulder, Colo.; and Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, both in Albuquerque, N.M.
Carhart’s abortion business especially has experienced medical emergencies in recent years. Eight such emergencies for women were reported in a 28-month period at Carhart’s clinic, Operation Rescue reported in July. One of those involved Jennifer Morbelli of New Rochelle, N.Y. Morbelli died in 2013 after Carhart began a lengthy procedure when her unborn daughter was reportedly 33 weeks into gestation.
PBS “is missing the real story” by telecasting “After Tiller,” said Kristi Burton Brown, a lawyer affiliated with both the Life Legal Defense Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, in an Aug. 28 blog post for the pro-life organization Live Action.
“[N]owhere in the film is the real ‘work’ of the abortion doctors shown,” Brown wrote.
“What is their ‘work?’ Well, the dead babies of course. The dead babies who sometimes come out in pieces, sometimes alive, but, who nearly always –- regardless of the inhumane method used –- end up dead.”
The film’s co-directors and co-producers, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, said they decided to frame the movie from the doctors’ viewpoints. “[O]ur goal was to give these doctors a voice,” they said in a written statement.
They chose to portray the pro-life movement from the doctors’ perspective –- “as a constant presence in the background, whether standing outside their clinics in protest, or lurking in the air as a potential threat,” Shane and Wilson said.
One of the goals of the production team’s outreach effort for the film, according to a fund-raising document, is to “[c]hange 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.” Among partners in the outreach effort are NARAL Pro-choice America and local Planned Parenthood chapters.
The theatrical premiere of “After Tiller” was in January 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).