'After Tiller': Ignoring Threats, Doctors Do Third-Trimester Abortions

PHOTO: (Clockwise from top left) Dr. Robinson, Dr. Sella, Dr. Carhart, Dr. Hern acknowledge publicly that they provide third-trimester abortions.
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Spend 10 minutes on the phone with Dr. Susan Robinson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in providing women with third-trimester abortions, and the name Aron Ralston will invariably come up. He's the mountain climber who was trapped in a canyon in Utah after a boulder crushed his right hand. He was pinned down by the boulder for five days (the film "127 Hours" is based on his story) until he realized the only way he could get free would be to cut off his hand.

It's a graphic, horrific image, but Robinson says it's the best analogy she can think of to describe women who are pregnant in their third trimester and "have thought about it deeply, consulted their conscience, wrestled with the ethics, and decided the best thing for themselves and their families is to have an abortion."

"People think you choose an abortion like you choose red or green shoes, or a flavor of ice cream," Robinson told ABC News. "But in fact, they [the women I see] need an abortion the way Aron Ralston needed to cut his hand off."

Robinson is one of four doctors featured in the documentary "After Tiller," which screened at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. "A #Sundance first: security guards checking bags and wanding people before abortion documentary 'After Tiller,'" tweeted Sean Means, movie critic for The Salt Lake Tribune.

The film takes its name from Dr. George Tiller, a third-trimester abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., who was assassinated in May 2009 while attending church. Robinson worked with Tiller, as did Shelley Sella, who worked as a midwife before becoming a doctor and abortion provider, and is also featured in the film. The two now operate out of a clinic in Albuquerque.

"We learned at his knee," said Robinson, speaking of Tiller. "Kindness, courtesy, justice, love and respect are the hallmarks of a good doctor-patient relationship. People tell me every single day, 'Dr. Robinson, you've given me my life back.' For these women it is life or death. Many women try to self-abort. The less available it is, the poor will have the hardest time."

A Red-Hot Issue

If abortion is a hot-button political issue, then third-trimester abortion is red-hot, and such words as "kindness" and "respect" are not two that leap to mind for many people. The arrest two years ago of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was accused of killing a woman with a lethal dose of Demerol, put a gruesome face on doctors performing third-trimester abortions. Police, searching his office, found what prosecutors called "a house of horrors," where illegal abortions were performed, bags and bottles of aborted fetuses scattered throughout the building, a place where fetuses were delivered live and then killed with scissors.

But even many supporters of abortion rights draw a line at third-trimester abortions. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that making abortion illegal in the last trimester got strong support from both pro-choice (79 percent) and pro-life advocates (94 percent). Laws passed in 41 states prohibit abortions, except to protect the woman's life, after a certain point in the pregnancy, usually fetal viability (about 24 weeks). In the U.S., 88 percent of abortions are done in the first 12 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute; fewer than 1 percent are in the third trimester.

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