The Business of Being Born
Directed by Abby Epstein
Red Envelope Entertainment and
International Film Circuit, 2007
A lone woman, sucking in air through a clear plastic mask, hair hidden under a blue cap, lies fear-stricken on a hospital bed. The white walls close in on her, the IV drips labor-inducing drugs into her blood as strangers with medical degrees look down upon her. This is how 99 percent of the next generation enters the world in the United States.
An unapologetic low-budget documentary, The Business of Being Born follows two mothers, TV icon Ricki Lake and New York filmmaker Abby Epstein, as they question why midwifery and homebirths have been pushed off the table as birthing options. A collage of women, doctors and midwives put the American medical establishment on trial, calling into question the alarming statistics of hospital births: the United States has the second worst newborn death rate, and the highest birth-associated costs, in the industrialized world — and explore alternatives to this medical disempowerment of women.
In one close-up shot, a nude woman delivers her baby in a rush of bloody fluids, squatting in her New York kitchen. In another, a midwife hugs a near-mother from behind, hands locked together around her bare breasts, helping her with the natural motions of labor. In a raw bathtub scene, the naked Ricki Lake documents herself taking hold of her baby the second it slops from the birth canal into the water.
The film succintly covers the pros of a natural birth, but only momentarily touches on the 1,500-year legacy of how discrimination against women healers has created the nightmare of modern childbirth. In their 1972 book Witches, Midwives and Nurses, authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explore how the partnership of the Church, State and the upperclass, male medical profession secured a monopoly on healing and childbirth throughout Europe. Through centuries of organized witchhunts, they write, millions of women healers were burnt alive. As medical knowledge spread from the Arab world, women and the poor were shut out as education and licensing, permitted only to men, were instituted as requirements to practice medicine.
A homebirth, the film tells us, is about “getting the hell out of the hospital” and reclaiming the power of creation and the rights to our body. But this radical act must be coupled with a wider social justice health movement.
The Business of Being Born is currently playing at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan.