After Tiller – the impact on audiences and attitudes

Membership Call: Thursday, March 3 at 1:00 PM EST/10:00 AM PST

Less than 1.3% of abortions percent take place after 21 weeks. Polling shows that 61% of the public support first trimester abortion, but only 14% support third trimester procedures. This research aimed to determine how watching the film After Tiller, which profiles 4 US later abortion providers, impacts viewers’ beliefs & thoughts about later abortion. Fifty individuals participated in interviews, and analysis was restricted to the 49 who identified as pro-choice,  in order to better examine the decline in support after the first trimester. Participants were interviewed after viewing the film, but were asked about their attitudes pre-viewing.

Among most participants, prior to viewing the film, there were low levels of knowledge and high levels of discomfort with the concept of later abortion. Limited knowledge of later abortion was rooted in anti-abortion imagery and political framing. Respondents cited Dr. Tiller’s death, the political debate around the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” and anti-choice propaganda as their primary sources of information about later abortion and many were confused about who got later abortions and why.

After viewing the film, viewers were convinced of the dignity of the procedure and viewed abortion providers as compassionate and skilled. There was a much higher level of respect for MDs who provide later abortion care than before the film. Support for providers translated into support for legal third trimester abortions (all 49 said that third trimester abortion should be legal in their state, post-viewing). They didn’t differentiate their support for first from third trimester procedures, but also did not support third trimester procedures for any reason. Primarily, they reported support for third trimester abortions in cases of fetal anomaly and maternal health indications, despite a lack of maternal health indications in the film.

The film increased knowledge of and comfort about third trimester abortion, including unanimous support for legality of third trimester procedures. But in many ways, participant opinions were still shaped by social myths (e.g., identifying “legitimate” or “good” reasons for an abortion), and a preference for physicians occupying the role of gatekeepers to care rather than trusting women to make their own decisions about their health and families. Participant opinions reflect a pre-existing frame for when and why later abortion is acceptable. One very well-done documentary is not going to undo all the assumptions and cultural knowledge that people have absorbed. Participants’ responses do suggest that if one can show that later abortion is necessary and moral care, they’re more likely to support abortion more broadly. Participants’ responses also call into question the cultural utility of a narrative about abortion based on trimesters; they didn’t view abortions in later trimesters as qualitatively different.