Sunday, November 18, 2007

Movie Review: The Business of Being Born

My church screened the new documentary The Business of Being Born Saturday. From an art/critical/analytical stance, the movie is not wonderful; it’s firmly in the realm of Pretty OK. The animated sequence near the beginning didn’t fit for me and bothered the continuity a little. The content is great, though, and it’s empowering to see this information in a film that’s getting some attention, but I doubt that the AMA is going to watch it and think, “Oh, wow. Our whole profession has fucked up royally. Let’s start telling women to give birth at home.” And, incedentally, that's pretty much what would happen if the birth industry actually prioritized women's and children's health.

It’s infuriating to see some of the doctors’ arrogant contentment with being completely ignorant of the natural process of birth. Many had never witnessed a non-medicated birth. I really think, based on my acquaintances’ birth stories, that most doctors haven’t. There is a lot of talk about the “cascade of interventions” and a little bit of exposition explaining exactly how interfering in labor creates distress for mom and babies. I would have liked to see more explanation of how a natural birth progresses and why it works juxtaposed with exactly how the interventions create problems that require furthur interventions. (See Henci Goer's book The Thinking Woman's Guide to Better Birth, for great detail about each common intervention and why it can help and hurt specific processes in labor.)

There are several interviews with doctors who advocate for natural and home birth. I’m skipping the rant about our tendency to deify doctors here, but they do lend credibility to the filmmakers’ assertions. The statistics and historical information presented also provide good back up. There’s less spiritual flavor than I’d expected, and what is included is mostly from the mothers whose births are shown- and I'm comfortable with that. I half-expected more new age vibes that would turn off some mainstream viewers. "Being Born" actually shows pretty well that the need for more natural births isn't because women are missing a primal initiation experience that will enrich them spiritually and psychologically- which is a deep truth. The crisis isn't about that, though. American birth is in a state of emergency because we have an absurdly high infant mortality rate in comparison with other industrialized nations, and our C-section rate is as high as one in three in some regions. The ramifications of medicine and law appropriating the whole of our pregnancies are creating serious health problems and deaths. The technologies used aren't always well-researched or tested, and are used by default when they aren't needed. This isn't a matter of just being ridiculously over-cautious; these disruptions to labor and delivery cause actual, measurable harm.

For the crunchy contingent, I thought we'd hear a passing mention of unassisted birth. There were at least two scenes video of women catching their own babies (the image that brings me to tears immediately, along with the first breastfeeding:) I didn't see any mention of women who don't have birth attendants, but the midwives do mention that their role is guide and witness. My own discomfort with UC comes from a feeling that I do lack something in my role as a mother- the midwives help fill in gaps in experiential knowledge for women who have never attended a natural birth and seen first hand what our bodies can do.

I’m really moved that Ricki Lake (who is the executive producer) let director Abby Epstein include footage of Ricki’s homebirth. It's incredibly beautiful. Her being a public figure and knowing that people gawk and gossip and judge, but being vulnerable and showing her body in its most intimate, intense moment is a kind of a little gift to women as a whole. An offering to try to help bring back our ownership of our bodies. And with adorable serendipity, Abby gets pregnant during filming and we get to see her exploring the process from a perspective that's probably closer to most American women. (She actually does end up in the hospital with a baby in distress- who is just fine, other anxious moms.)

The Business of Being Born is powerful in reframing medicalized births as unneccesarily dangerous. The statistics and history speak for themselves, but the footage of midwive's visits and the births help create the stories of authentic births that are the real focus. Several women I watched with are planning to get the DVD as gifts for mamas-to-be. I expect many birth classes will include it, too. Sadly, a nurse from a hospital here in WV told us that her department would never allow her to show it.

The frustrating thing at the core of the whole issue is that the information readily accessible to women- what their caregiver and peers relate to them from their experience- does not include normal birth. To find out what our bodies do when left to perform without anything to impede or dull the intricacies involved in labor, we have to dig a little bit. It's easy to find, but you have to know to look. I hope this documentary will earn some attention-it looks like Ricki's promoting it well.


For the film geeks:

Interviews with Ricki:
More reviews:

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