Some Local PBS Stations Have Refused To Air "After Tiller," A Documentary About Third Trimester Abortions

Refusing to air a documentary on abortion doesn't make the issue go away.
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Refusing to air a documentary on abortion doesn't make the issue go away.

PBS' POV is a program that airs documentaries on a huge range of subjects of general interest to members of the public, including the recent "After Tiller," a moving, complex, balanced look at the handful of abortion providers in the US who still openly offer third trimester procedures. It was scheduled to debut on September 1st, but you might have missed it -- because 10 states refused to air it on the release date. 

Mississippi was one such example; the film actually has yet to air on MPB thanks to its "controversial nature." Individual public broadcasting organizations and stations do have a right to choose which programming they air and when, setting up a schedule that they think will appeal to their audiences, but the decision to ditch a documentary about abortion in a state where abortion rights are in peril looks deeply suspicious, especially in light of the overall statistics on programs aired on PBS.

POV ombudsman Michael Geller happens to have those statistics ready at hand: "Typical 'POV' carriage, specialists say, is about 55 percent of the stations and 73 percent coverage of the country's TV households. This program looks like 48 percent and 60 percent, respectively." Hrm. That sounds rather disheartening, especially when you consider the fact that the states where abortion rights are most restrictive are those where the documentary is least likely to be aired -- and are those where people could probably most benefit from seeing it.

Let's face it: While "After Tiller" is a great documentary (and you can catch it online if you have't had a chance to see it yet), those of us with progressive and liberal inclinations aren't getting much new out of it. It's effectively preaching to the choir when it shows us the day-to-day lives of people providing abortion services at great personal risk, and the experiences they have with patients. Third trimester abortions are so rare, and so traumatic for patients who are usually facing medical crises, that this documentary is facing a very sensitive subject and is trying to approach it with nuance and respect. But if you support full abortion rights, there's not much novel going on.

People opposed to abortion, or are on the fence about third trimester procedures, might actually benefit from seeing the compassionate care provided to patients and learning a little more about when, where, how, and why third trimester abortions take place. For those interested in learning more about the opposing side of the abortion debate, "After Tiller" provides one method of introduction -- and having it removed from the air makes it difficult to find, unless they happen to keep track of the POV schedule and note that it's coming up so they can watch it online. Furthermore, of course, for people interested in reproductive rights and living in areas where the documentary wasn't aired, the decision to suppress it was a huge loss. 

Photo: Dave Parker/Flickr

Photo: Dave Parker/Flickr

So, what's the big deal with "After Tiller"? Why is it so terrifying and upsetting for conservatives, other than the obvious? 

Judie Brown, representing the American Life League, called for the film to be cancelled altogether: "...pro-life tax dollars being used to paint a sympathetic picture of abortionists who stab babies in the base of their skulls just moments before they are born." Here's Kristi Brown on the film: "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."

Brietbart similarly whips up sentiment: "On Labor Day, taxpayer-funded PBS is scheduled to air the documentary After Tiller, a film that extols the work of late-term abortionists, aiming to evoke empathy for them and casting them as saviors and heroes of women." Dave Andrusko (clearly an authority on women's rights) writes that: "PBS is willing to give a platform to a film that glorifies the killing."

In short, the right is saying that "After Tiller" "glorifies abortion" and argues that the film is going against the will of the American public -- and that since PBS is funded by taxpayer monies (apparently those donation funds and grant money don't mean anything), it should be accountable to the general sentiments of American taxpayers. The majority of people in the US don't support access to abortion. 

Or...do they?

Gallup, generally viewed as a pretty respectable polling organization, found that only 46% of the population specifically identifies as pro-life as of 2014. Just slightly more (47% -- those numbers don't add up perfectly because of undecideds) are pro-choice. The issue is definitely tighter than it was in the 1990s, when many more people considered themselves pro-choice, and we have the right's polarization of the abortion issue to thank for that. 

46% to 47% sounds like a rather slim margin -- and suggests that a fair chunk of taxpayers, though not a majority, aren't into abortion. However, the picture changes with a different poll question: 28% of respondents believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances. Another 50% believe in legalization, with some restrictions. That's 78% of the population supporting some degree of abortion access -- though a chunk of that 50% is probably opposed to third trimester abortion, the procedure depicted in "After Tiller."

But to suggest that the film goes against the will of the American taxpayer (setting aside the fact that PBS receives a tiny fraction of the federal budget and is heavily supported by individual member stations as well as grants) is a bit much. Taxpayers are not unilaterally opposed to abortion, and a film discussing the issue should only be viewed with hostility if you believe that Americans shouldn't be educated and informed about social issues. Maybe some people will watch the film and be discomfited by third trimester abortion, ending up with a more conservative stance on the issue. Maybe others will find the film humanising and wind up more supportive. These individual responses are precisely why people need to be seeing "After Tiller," so they can be forming their own opinions about the issue rather than having those opinions shaped for them by people screaming rhetoric. 

Personally, I believe in abortion upon request and without explanation -- people at all stages of pregnancy have the right to access abortion services without needing to justify them or apologize. That doesn't mean I won't watch films like "After Tiller," which include some tangled ethical issues, or well-produced, balanced films from conservative directors as well. (It's a bit much to paint PBS as some sort of wildly liberalized, frothing at the mouth abortion pusher -- but it clearly has a leftward slant.) I find it highly unlikely that I'll be convinced to change my position -- but depriving me of the right to see media that might inform my opinion on abortion, as Mississippi and nine other states just did to those with opinions that differ from my own, is an injustice.