George Tiller's assassination coverage frustrated directors, led to 'After Tiller'

Monday, March 4, 2013 | 6:36 p.m. CST; updated 11:29 p.m. CST, Monday, March 4, 2013

COLUMBIA — When Phil Wood and his wife decided, on the advice of physicians, to end a pregnancy of twins they discovered had a fetal anomaly, Wood pledged to help others any way he could.

"I said to myself that if there's anything else I could do to help other women in this situation, I would do it," he said.

Wood, a professor in psychological sciences at MU, was part of a four-person panel at MU on Monday morning that discussed the film "After Tiller," which was shown over the weekend in the True/False Film Fest.

Lana Wilson and Martha Shane, who co-directed and produced the film, as well as the Rev. Nancy TannerThies, who was ordained in the Christian Church and is a teacher at Sapattu, a retreat center in Jefferson City, were also on the panel. Michelle Trupiano, a lobbyist with Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri moderated the discussion.

About 20 people came to Stotler Lounge in the Memorial Student Union to ask questions about the film as well as the topic of third-trimester abortions, which was the main focus of the film.

Wilson and Shane were drawn to the subject after watching the media coverage of the 2009 murder of George Tiller, who was one of five doctors in the U.S. trained and willing to perform third-trimester abortions.

"It was frustrating to watch the coverage of Dr. Tiller's death," Wilson said. "They'd say a controversial doctor died and not much else."

Shane's interest was piqued by learning about the miniscule number of physicians willing to provide this service. 

"How in the world in a country this large could there be only four people who do these procedures?" Shane asked.

A Guttmacher Institute study in 2005 found that only 3 percent of abortions cite fetal health as the reason, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that only 1.3 percent of pregnancies are terminated after 21 weeks of gestation. 

The directors said the film's main goal was to humanize the doctors who perform third-trimester abortions, show what they go through daily and the challenges of their work. The film shows several patient-doctor meetings, couples' counseling sessions and the lives of the people at the center of the abortion debate.

While Wilson and Shane were aiming to educate, their work also taught them a lot about the people involved in third-term abortions in terms of the diversity among women's stories and their background.

"We learned a lot about where these women (getting late-term abortions) were coming from that surprised us," Wilson said.

Shane added that some of their own misconceptions were corrected during the filming as they talked to the doctors. 

"We thought these people must have incredible courage to keep doing this in spite of the danger," she said. "But it's not about courage. It's about compassion and love for the patients."

That is not to say that courage is not required, as the filmmakers noted. Wilson explained that even though Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 he continued to his Wichita clinic until he was killed at church on May 31, 2009. His murderer, Scott Roeder, was sentenced to life in prison in April 2010. Other clinics have also been targets of protest and vandalism, as shown in the film.

Wood described Tiller's clinic, where he and his wife traveled for the procedure, with its fence and security cameras, metal detectors and security guard.

"I thought to myself, 'What am I getting myself into?'" he said.

The doctors in the film pointed out that they had no intention of becoming political figures and that their only concern was the patients. That was why Tiller never spoke to the media, and that led to some misconceptions. While the doctors remained silent, the anti-abortion movement was "very aggressive about getting stuff out there," Wilson said.

The film has now played at two major film festivals, including True/False and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The directors of the film are actively searching for more outlets and groups that want to show the film.

Wilson and Shane also said the film distributor is looking into creating an educational plan for the movie, making it available to schools before it is open to the public.

The film's Columbia debut came at possibly a critical time for pro-abortion rights activists in Missouri as House Bill 386 is set for a hearing Wednesday. The bill, if passed, would ban abortions that cite fetal anomaly as the reason — even potentially fatal anomalies — no matter when the mother finds out about the anomaly. The proposed legislation was introduced in the previous legislative session but gained little traction.

The timing of the bill has been troubling for Trupiano and pro-abortion rights activists as bills that are introduced earlier in the session are more likely to pass, she said. Trupiano added legislation that likely will not pass is usually sidelined by the time of MU's spring break.

"That it's rising this early in session, it's concerning," Trupiano said.

Wilson and Shane said they hope their work can be used as a source of middle ground for understanding as the debate over abortion continues in both the public and government spheres.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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