Before and 'After Tiller'

Posted by Michael Getler on

As I was saying last week at this time, I had received more than four dozen emails critical of a program that had not yet aired on PBS. The 90-minute documentary, titled “After Tiller,” was broadcast on Sept. 1. It deals, in considerable depth, with the only four remaining doctors in the United States who openly perform late-term abortions. They carry on the work of the late Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered while at church in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist who is serving a life sentence in prison and whose act was strongly condemned by the National Right to Life Committee.

The film is part of PBS’s long-running “POV” series of independently-produced documentaries. POV stands for “point of view,” and this film had one. That’s okay, as I see it, because an intense focus, as this film provided, on the lives and dilemmas of these doctors and their patients is a worthwhile public service undertaking involving a very rare look at a controversial and emotional, but legal, practice.
I should also say at the outset that, as a viewer, I felt this examination, as revealing and gripping as it was, would have benefitted from at least a few minutes of calm, thoughtful exploration of the opposition view.
This is not, however, an issue normally characterized as calm and thoughtful. It is relentlessly contentious. So as of this writing, more than 850 emails and phone calls have landed in the ombudsman’s mailbox. The vast majority arrived before the program aired. All of those were critical and many were undoubtedly driven by strong criticism of the program, its alleged biases, the procedure and PBS by several right-to-life groups, including the American Life League, which is the country’s largest grassroots Catholic pro-life education organization and which, as did many of the emailers, demanded that PBS cancel the program.

The flow of mail since the broadcast has been less intense, although still largely critical and from late-term abortion opponents calling, among other things, for PBS to air a program focusing on the opposition view. But there have also been some viewers who have applauded POV for providing this rare glimpse into the doctors and patients at the heart of this debate.

First, Some Background

The POV program, at the outset, provides some simplified basics on the screen: “In 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, but allowed states to ban abortions in the third trimester, with exceptions for the life or health of the mother. The third trimester typically begins at about the 25th week of pregnancy. Nine states allow third-trimester abortions without legal restrictions. These abortions account for fewer than 1% of all abortions in the United States…and there are only four known doctors who can do them.”

There are, according to additional background provided online by POV, about 1.2 million abortions performed in the U.S. each year and of these, 88 percent occur in the first trimester. And while opinion polls show that a majority of respondents still support Roe v. Wade, as a New York Times analysis pointed out last year, “strong support for Roe does not necessarily conflict with the strong reservations Americans express about unrestricted abortion access.” Indeed, the POV background material points out that, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, “only 14 percent of Americans support the legality of abortions in the third trimester, meaning that many people who consider themselves pro-choice may not support the rights of women to have late abortions.”

But this film is not about the broad, heated, decades-long debate about abortion. It is about these four doctors who, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Tiller and facing intense protest from opponents and fearing for their own safety, carry out this procedure. It is also about the complex reasons that their patients seek their services and the ethical dilemmas surrounding these decisions. Some of these decisions fall into categories one might expect to hear. But others do not, especially the wrenching ethical discussion surrounding a 16-year-old abortion-seeker that unfolds on the program.

Those Who Saw It…

There are two more factors that I think are worth noting as background.

One is that in sharp contrast to the outrage of pro-life organizations and individuals protesting the showing of this program on PBS, the film, which debuted at the Sundance film festival and local theaters last year, received overwhelmingly positive reviews by some 53 film critics surveyed at the time.

Some examples: Writing on, Christy Lemire said, “After Tiller takes the politically divisive, emotionally charged issue of late-term abortions and portrays it with grace, understatement and humanity.”

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday started out this way, “'After Tiller,' a lucid, even-tempered portrait of physicians who perform late-term abortions, exemplifies the crucial role documentaries have come to play in civic discourse, which is so often whipped into partisan fury and emotionalism. In between straight-up journalism and op-ed histrionics, nonfiction narrative films — when done as well as this one — fill in the spaces between the facts with human stories that have the power to change the way viewers think about an agonizing personal and political issue.”

A.O. Scott of the New York Times concluded, “Documentaries can rarely be judged as works of dispassionate, neutral reporting since few of them aspire to uphold those journalistic criteria. Rather, a documentary should be assessed as a representation of the world as it is, from a perspective that is itself part of that world. 'After Tiller' is impressive because it honestly presents the views of supporters of legal abortion, and is thus a valuable contribution to a public argument that is unlikely to end anytime soon.”

…And Those Who Did Not

The other factor worthy of note is that, as far as I can tell from early data, not a whole lot of PBS viewers got to see this program. Whether that is because of protests or local stations choosing not to air it or other factors, I don’t know. Preliminary indications show the program being aired in only about 48% of the 50 major so-called “metered market” stations around the country and about a quarter of those stations shifted the program so that it aired later at night, after primetime and after the time it was made available. There were 10 states where there was no station carrying the program, at least on the night it was meant to air. There are three member stations here in the Washington, D.C. area, for example, but only one carried it and the broadcast started at 11 p.m. and ended at 12:30 a.m. Some other cities that did show it moved it to a secondary, or multicast, channel instead of broadcasting the program on the main channel, and the overall viewership ratings appear to be quite low for “After Tiller.” Typical POV carriage, specialists say, is about 55% of the stations and 73% coverage of the country's TV households. This program looks like 48% and 60%, respectively.

Some Letters and a POV Response

Here is a representative sampling of the emails I’ve received. This makes for a long column but I wanted to present the flavor of the commentary.


I am extremely disappointed that PBS is showing the pro-abortion documentary, After Tiller, on CET in Cincinnati, as well as other PBS stations. I find it totally inconsistent that you would feature such a program, when you claim to be a premier source of children's programming. Abortion kills children, and late-term abortion in particular kills children in a hideous, painful way. Clearly you have no regard for children's lives since you are promoting this program. I have seen nothing to date on PBS that promotes life in any way, unless it is promoting the lives of dolphins or bald eagles. Human babies are nothing in your worldview. Your claim to be educators for children is a bald-faced lie.

Monte Schellenberger, Cincinnati, OH

~ ~ ~

I believe that the broadcast of the POV documentary "After Tiller" violated PBS's policy of intellectual honesty.  This documentary is clearly very radical late-term pro-abortion propaganda. It focuses completely on the woman's problems and ignores the fact that a human life is being ended. It very quickly glosses over the fetal pain issue in spite of congressional testimony by competent researchers and passage in the US House of H.R.1797: Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2013. It will be very interesting to see if PBS is willing to broadcast the movie about Kermit Gosnell that has been crowd-funded on Indiegogo.

John Webb, Hayden, ID

~ ~ ~

I wanted to ask PBS to consider its commitment to objective coverage when it airs the documentary "After Tiller." The film is a well done, albeit deeply sympathetic presentation of abortion. I ask PBS to give equal air time to an equally good quality pro-choice documentary. Thank you for PBS' standard of excellence in news and feature coverage.

Tawas, MI

~ ~ ~

I would hope in light of the airing of "After Tiller' last night, that you will level the playing field for your viewers and find a similar movie to air for the unborn children affected by the "Tiller's" of the world. Can we muster some compassion for them? Of course, there are always two sides to every story. You decided to paint such a compassionate piece (with the help of Sundance) for your pro-abortion viewers and I expect you will do the same for your pro-LIFE viewers. With so many tragic things going on in the world today, one has to wonder why PBS chooses the topics it does. I will continue, though, to pray for you, PBS, and all those who justify the killing of any child, born or unborn.

Jeaninne H., Cleveland, OH

~ ~ ~

I'm writing regarding how PBS 'upholds its own standards of editorial integrity'. I question why PBS has chosen to dedicate airtime to pro-choice programming, while not attempting to provide airtime to the pro-life side of the discussion. Trying to 'humanize' late-term abortions is a daunting task that PBS is undertaking...why not at least give the pro-life camp a chance at showing how truly dehumanizing abortion is? I suggest the movie 180 by Living Waters. As it stands right now, PBS has chosen to fit in with the other mainstream media in their efforts to silence the opposition. It seems that writing your own 'standards of editorial integrity' (as opposed to simply being ethical), PBS has opened the door to doing anything they want, and then stamping it 'ethical.' Thanks for your time.

Severance, CO

~ ~ ~

PBS aired "After Tiller" in an attempt to make abortionist-doctors seem human even as they kill babies in the last months in the womb. The movie is very sad on many levels. First, a murderer killed abortionist, Dr. Tiller. Yet, does that give abortionist-doctors the right to take the life of babies in late term? Are these abortionists victims and heroes or fellow murderers? Why are our tax dollars being used on Public Broadcasting Systems to glamorize and airbrush those who make money taking the life of defenseless babies? The show stated that 1% of abortions in the U.S. are late term. That would mean 13,000 such abortions in our country each year. If there were 13,000 child abuse cases, wouldn't there be outrage? Destroying a fully formed baby in the womb is child abuse leading to death. Why would PBS try to "humanize" these four "doctor" who do this?

Jay Moyers, Centennial, CO

~ ~ ~

The decision to air "After Tiller" is entirely within the bounds of free speech, which I entirely support. But with the use of taxpayers' money comes the responsibility of equal time, which would require other perspectives to be featured; one case being the airing of the production "40." It is this aspect of free speech which sets the example for the rest of the world.

J.M. Strines, Bowie, MD

~ ~ ~

I recently watched the movie After Tiller. It was a well-made "documentary" with a very strong bias. Facts were used in ways to persuade the audience. I am concerned that PBS's choice to air this (without other perspectives on the issue), reflects a position on the partial birth abortion issue. I wouldn't have an issue with the airing of this if PBS would present the other side of the issue. What happens when doctors are wrong, and a child is not doomed to a life of suffering as a handicapped individual - abortion is like the death penalty (the finality of it should make us avoid it). I've watched PBS's children's programming - there appears to be a strong moral background for this. Could this please extend to adult programming, too? This exclusively one-sided presentation to the public with public tax dollars fails to impress.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

~ ~ ~

I am discouraged by your decision to air "After Tiller." Though I know the doctors who perform late term abortions are human, I also know the little babies whom they kill are humans also. Taking a life and death decision into their hands and deciding one human is better off to live than another is making a divine judgment which should be left only to God who knows best. Please air the other perspective and show the documentary, "40" which shows the reality of Life in the womb. Science has confirmed it, though some deny it. Truth is truth, show the truth.

Melissa Jones, Tampa, FL

~ ~ ~

I just finished watching "After Tiller" on the PBS station. Abortion in my eyes is wrong. I do not approve of killing babies even though this is the law of the land. The presentation of "After Tiller" is very disturbing. I shook my head in disbelief listening to these doctors, and counselors justifying why they need to do these late term abortions. Since tax payer money was used to justify abortions, why not present the "Choose Life" and show the goodness in the mother keeping her baby or adoption. I watch a lot of very good programs on PBS and I feel taxpayer money is put to good use. Thank you for your consideration is this matter. 

Mason, IL

~ ~ ~

I watched the documentary "After Tiller" on our local PBS station. I am staunchly pro-life, but appreciated the chance to see the issue from another point-of-view. However, I believe that it is important to show both sides of an issue in order to truly be unbiased. With that belief, may I suggest that PBS air the documentary "40", which is a very well done piece on the pro-life point-of-view. Thank you for your consideration.

Kirksville, MO

~ ~ ~

I love your station. It breaks my heart that you are airing a documentary normalizing abortion. I watched a few minutes of it because that's who I am. I make my own opinions about things. I honestly had to turn it off after probably 15 minutes. I felt like I was going to be sick. I'm still trying to shake the feeling. Abortion is a serious thing. I won't go into the morality because I know you've already received thousands of complaints preaching morality. I just wanted to convey my thoughts to you. Thank you for your time. I will be praying for you and for pbs. And especially the people in the documentary, specifically the women. Abortion is not victimless. Women are hurting too, I hope you cover the gravity of that as well. I won't be turning it back on to find out.

Tricia Karolenko, Hanover, PA

~ ~ ~

I write to express my extreme displeasure concerning the decision by PBS to air the "After Tiller" documentary. While I appeal to PBS to cancel the broadcast, I am not naive enough to believe that PBS would actually pull the show. I then, secondarily, appeal for fairness and equal access for the pro-life perspective. Will PBS find time to tell the stories of post-abortive regret and grief, infertility and breast cancer, the maiming and killing of women in the clinics, the post-abortive suicides? Will there ever be a sympathetic case made for the pre-born? Will the pro-life side get equal time? As someone conceived in rape, I am infinitely grateful that society valued my life and protected it through law before I was born. There are many existing, recently produced documentaries to choose from: "40", "Maafa 21", "Blood Money", " The Gift of Life" among them. I cannot help but think that, in the interest of journalistic integrity and the desire of PBS to be seen as a trusted, unbiased source of news, the publicly funded network will offer balance to the public it serves. Thank you for your attention.

James Sable, Prospect Heights, IL


Thank you so much for airing "After Tiller." It was an extremely thought provoking documentary that left me with chills and a better understanding that this is not a black and white issue. I also wish to thank you for not pulling this program because other groups didn't want the public to see a different view on abortion that might question everything you thought you believed in. I'm proud to be a pbs viewer after today. Your actions were filled with integrity and I just wanted to say thank you. We need more stations like this.

Hillary Chamberlin, Longview, TX

~ ~ ~

Thank you for airing the "After Tiller" program. With the attacks continuing on a woman's right to control her reproductive system, it is critical that this right be defended. Anti-woman fanatics have had some success if defining the issue as "baby killing," while the right of women to obtain an abortion — outlined in Roe Vs Wade —is being lost due to lack of access.

Bob Schwartz, Chicago, IL

~ ~ ~

Thank you for showing "After Tiller". I felt it was a fair presentation of many of the issues and concerns of those who feel called to practice late term abortions (or abortions in general). You humanized the situation without disrespecting those who disagree strongly. I would hope that some of those who have already written to you actually watched the program and heard and recognized the pain felt by those able to help women make the hard choice they feel necessary in very difficult situations. Perhaps they can then understand and accept that their choice does not have to rule other people's choices over the control of their lives and health.

Detroit, MI

~ ~ ~

Thank you for showing the documentary After Tiller on your program. It's an informative documentary that raises the veil on so many truths about abortion — particularly third-trimester abortions. Most people don't realize how much these procedures cost, who is having them, and how hard it is to find people to help you get one. I know you might be getting a lot of pushback from pro-lifers, so I wanted to share my support. In memory of Dr. Tiller, thank you.

Silver Spring, MD

POV’s Executive Producer, Simon Kilmurry, Responds

Just as the PBS Ombudsman has received many emails about the film After Tiller, mostly before the broadcast, likewise POV's website message boards have received a number of comments, the vast majority of which were posted prior to the broadcast.

POV films often look to bring a new perspective on contemporary issues. After Tiller takes an issue that has been widely debated, legislated and protested - abortion, specifically late-term abortion - and looks at it through the experience of the physicians who provide healthcare services to their patients. The filmmakers - in whose hands lies editorial control - chose to maintain this perspective through the film. Through this, the audience can see that these are not simple decisions, for either doctors or patients, but in fact there are complex moral, ethical, emotional and psychological factors that are weighed by them. This complexity is often lost in the heat of the abortion debates. Also, since this is primarily a verité film from the doctor’s point-of-view, inserting an outside dissenting voice is structurally incompatible - it is not part of these doctors’ daily experience. 

We have provided forums for additional voices and explorations – POV’s message boards, a Google+ chat that was hosted on Tuesday, the film’s additional resources available free online and social media - all with significant opportunities for viewers to share other perspectives. Judging from the volume of posts and social media people are taking advantage of this.

We first viewed the film about a year ago and had it reviewed by our editorial committee, who recommended it for broadcast. This was prior to its Sundance premiere. The film was almost finished and we entered into negotiations to license it for broadcast. We are willing to consider any film submitted to us - regardless of topic or perspective. We receive over 1,000 submissions per year for 16 broadcast slots. I have not seen “40,” and a quick search of our database indicates it has never been submitted to us.


A PBS spokesperson added that PBS provides a little less than half of the budget for POV’s current season. No funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB] were used to present “After Tiller.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: This also seems a good time to join with probably hundreds of viewers over the past year or so who have written to complain about those little pop-up promotions for forthcoming PBS programs that appear during many programs. Watching a promo for “The Roosevelts” surface multiple times at the bottom of the screen—which involuntarily takes your eyes away from what is happening in the program—during a tension-filled documentary such as “After Tiller” is a useless, counter-productive technique that produces enemies for PBS, in my book, rather than viewers running off to pencil in “The Roosevelts” in their date book.)

Posted on Sept. 4, 2014 at 11:25 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
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