The Business of Being Born

Last Friday I was a very lucky duck: I was able to attend a screening of The Business of Being Born at the Tribeca Film Festival, hosted by Friends of the Birth Center, along with a post-show talkbalk with the Abby Epstein, the director of the movie, and Ricki Lake, the producer, followed by a cocktail reception. Given that the tickets to the screening (with proceeds going to Friends of the Birth Center) had sold out in less than 24 hours, and the line waiting to get in was a roll-call of who’s who in the New York City birthing community, I felt very lucky and very privileged to be part of this experience.

Most of the early press on the film has been encouraging rather than caustic, and everything I had heard by word-of-mouth was nothing but positive. I actually know many of the midwives and nurses and one or two of the doctors that are feautured in it, and I trusted their voices and their ability to speak accurately about birth and midwifery. Even so, I must admit I’m always a bit trepidatious when it comes to anything about midwives in the mainstream media. I’m always worried that somehow the media will get it wrong—they won’t get the full picture, they won’t understand the smaller details, they’ll paint our profession in broad, misinformed strokes, or they’ll fall back on stereotypes—with the end result being that the much-needed media attention, instead of being a welcome and helpful boon, actually does nothing more than continue to misinform and confuse the public about exactly what it is we do. It’s often a mixed blessing. I was also concerned that this film might be disregarded as too far out on the fringe—that it would come across like a very slanted Michael Moore documentary and therefore not have the universal appeal needed in order for it to be taken seriously by the mainstream public.

These fears were somewhat allayed when the announcer for the film—a man—came out and assured the men in the audience that if they were expecting to suffer through a “chick flick”, they were in for a very pleasant surprise. Apparently he had been on the Tribeca Film Festival selection committee, and it was one of the other men on the committee who had first approached him about the film, saying that he had really kind of liked it and needed a second opinion. As it turns out, the film’s biggest supporterters on the selection committee were these two men, both of whom had known absolutely nothing about birth prior to watching the film, but had found it to be a very fascinating, informative and well-researched documentary. The announcer kept it short and sweet, and then, without further adieu, the lights went down, and the film began.

The Business of Being Born sets out to explore the business of maternity care in our country. Along the way, the film raises a lot of difficult questions, which it then attempts to answer: why are the infant and maternal mortality rates in the US the second worst in the world when compared to other developed countries? Why do midwives deliver 60-80% of all births in other developed countries, but only 8% here? Why is our cesarean rate so high, especially when compared to other countries which have a much lower cesarean rate but much better overall outcomes? Why are so many mothers so disatisfied with their birth experience or maternity care? Why do so many of our births occur in hospitals? Why is the prevailing attitude towards birth one of fear, rather than of trust and normalcy? You know, just the sort of complicated questions which keep midwives up at night, but which very few other people ever stop to think about (I’m pretty sure it was Pat Burkhardt, director of the NYU Midwifery program, who rightly points out that most people do more research on buying a new car or appliance or camera than they do on their choices and options when it comes to birth). The film tackles these complicated questions from several angles, including the vicious circle of medicated birth (epidural leading to pitocin leading to more epidural leading to nonreassuring fetal status leading to cesarean, all done in cute cartoon format), the pervasive fear-mongering of birth on TV and in the media, the status symbol of “too posh to push” and “designer deliveries”, insurance issues, malpractice issues, even touching upon possible implications of disturbing the delicate “love cocktail” of hormones present in unmedicated births which facilitates bonding and maternal instinct. Quite a big mouthful to bite off for one small film.

The opening sequence of the film begins at 3:25 am, as a homebirth midwife (Cara Muhlhahn) prepares her birth bag before heading out to a birth. This footage is interspersed with people discussing their initial perceptions of midwifery and midwives. Not surprisingly, many of the people being questioned have either never heard of midwives before, or assumed that they were untrained granny-midwife types. A few people express disbelief that anyone would choose to have birth somewhere other than a hospital, or with someone other than a doctor. One man says something like “I didn’t even know midwives still existed”. We cut back to the homebirth midwife in her apartment, packing her bag. The idea that midwives are untrained grannies more likely to treat you with herbs than a prescription is quietly challenged by her preparations: we see her checking her oxygen tank, preparing her suture and syringes, counting vials of pitocin and other medicines, packing liters of IV fluid still neatly sealed in their bags, along with IV tubing, and then setting off to the birth.

Without a doubt, one of the best things about this film is the sheer number of unmedicated births that it shows. While attending and seeing births was something that was familiar and commonplace to many people at the turn of the century, in its move from the home to the hospital, birth has become isolated from everyday life, no longer thought of as a routine, normal occurrence. Today, most people have never been to a birth prior to having their own baby. What few births people do see are usually on TV, where they’re either wildly dramatic, such as the screaming, frantic woman on ER, or complicated and scary, such as on A Baby Story, where it seems like routine, normal vaginal births are often passed over in favor of dramatic life-and-death births, which probably garner much better ratings. Also, whenever birth is seen on TV, it is unfailingly (inevitably) set in the hospital. However, The Business of Being Born thankfully turns all of this on its head, showing what real, normal, uncomplicated, unmedicated birth actually looks like—something most people have probably never seen before. The audience is exposed, perhaps for the first time, to the sights and sounds of unmedicated labor. Instead of screaming and drama, women are shown rocking and swaying, moaning and grunting and sweating. Instead of beeping machines and alarms sounding, heads emerge from between legs in relative silence as the mothers are left undisturbed, pushing with quiet concentration and determination. We’re shown births attended by midwives in homes and birthing centers, births in tubs and pools, births squatting and standing; we even see Ricki Lake’s homebirth, in a bathtub.

While many famous, leading authorities (Michel Odent, Marsden Wagner, Ina May Gaskin, Robbie Davis-Floyd, to name a few) and many leaders in the New York City birthing community spend a lot of time discussing the issues behind the business of birth in the film, it’s often the images themselves which speak the loudest. Forget what the experts are saying: the audience is actually able to see it, with their own eyes. The images of women concentrating and pushing with power and strength, in tubs, kneeling on beds, supported by their partners, squatting or rocking, versus the images of women flat on their backs in the hospital, covered in tubes and oxygen masks, being told to “push!”, their legs in stirrups or held by staff, supine on gurneys being wheeled to the operating room, provides a message far more clear and visceral than any book or 5-hour lecture on the subject could manage. This, more than any other aspect of the film, probably provides the greatest education to the audience.

One of the issues raised at the talk-back session after the show was the decision to include director Abby Epstein’s birth in the film. Although she was planning on having a homebirth with Cara Muhlhahn, she went into labor at 35 weeks, and because her baby was breech, she needed a cesarean. While including this birth at the end of the film does put a bit of a damper on the natural-birth/homebirth high of the film, at the same time it demonstrates a very crucial point: homebirth and midwifery care is safe care. Midwives don’t take stupid risks, they have good clinical judgement, and they make good calls; they’re not going to try to deliver a premature breech baby at home. I also think it’s important for the audience to see that birth doesn’t always go according to plan, and that flexibiilty and the ability to roll with a change in circumstance is one of the most important aspects of a successful birth experience, and that support during these difficult transitions is also key. This birth also shows the system working exactly the way it should: the midwife takes care of the low-risk patient, but when low-risk becomes high-risk, the patient is transferred to the back-up doctor, and seamless, excellent healthcare is provided to the woman.

Perhaps the only problem with this is the fact that the care is almost too seamless. When Abby Epstein mentioned to her doctor that she was planning a homebirth, his enthusiastic response is just a little too quick. You can’t help but wonder: if the camera hadn’t been there, capturing the moment, would he have so readily offered to serve as back-up, or would he have tried to talk her out of having a homebirth using scare tactics or punitive manipulation? (This is by no means a statement on this particular doctor in the film, whom I personally know to be very supportive of midwives and midwifery, but rather a statement on the larger, more generalized attitudes of doctors towards midwifery and homebirth). In reality, it’s rarely so smooth a transition, and doctors are rarely so enthusiastic when they hear that their patients are planning a homebirth. While the film touches briefly on the competition between doctors and midwives and the fact that many doctors are vehemently anti-homebirth, the smooth transition of care between Abby Epstein’s homebirth midwife and back-up doctor is potentially misleading. The audience can walk away from the film thinking that this is a very easy thing to arrange, when actually, one of the biggest barriers to providing homebirth as a viable option to more women in this country is the lack of back-up providers and the challenges faced in trying to arrange appropriate back-up; rather than being smooth and easy, it’s often complex, frustrating and fraught with politics.

My only other critique of the film is that it is perhaps a bit too black and white: homebirth v. hospital, midwife v. doctor, unmedicated, natural childbirth v. monstrosity of tubes and terror. While the film did follow a hospital-based midwife (Catherine Tanksley), and showed midwives in hospitals, the emphasis seemed to be on homebirth. The truth is that in this country far more midwives practice in hospitals than they do in homes, and the word “midwife” is not synonymous with “unmedicated childbirth”. While midwives are experts in normal, unmedicated births, we’re not anti-epidural or anti-hospital. We can prescribe narcotics and pain relief in labor, we can order epidurals, we can support a woman through a medicated birth experience just as easily as an unmedicated birth—it really just boils down to the desires, needs and expectations of the woman and her family. Unfortunately, I can very easily see a woman walking away from this film and thinking “well, midwives are great for natural childbirth, but I want an epidural, so I guess that means I’ve got to go to a doctor”. While all of the beautiful, natural homebirths in this film are a joy and privilege to watch, I think one or two equally beautiful and joyous hospital births attended by midwives might have added a more balanced perspective to the film.

Nevertheless, overall I thought the film was truly amazing; it brought tears to my eyes on several occassions. Rather than being far out on the left fringe as I had feared, I was actually blown away by how mainstream and accessible it was. It begins with the assumption that the audience knows absolutely nothing about birth and the business of birth in this country, and then moves on from there, using a simple and easy-to-understand, yet powerful and engrossing format and narrative. Forget the Ricki Lake Show; I think this film will be a new highlight in her career, and I’m very grateful that a film like this has finally been made. I want all of my friends, my beloved boy, my family, my peers, to see this film so that they can finally see and understand exactly what it is that I do, and why I do it, and what I believe in. Hopefully this film will be picked up by a national distributor and shown in cities all over the country; hopefully soon it will be playing at a theater near you. If it is, you’ll have to go and see it—and bring all of your friends with you!

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