Sunday, January 13, 2008

Slate reviews Ricki Lake's "valentine to the homebirth movement"

Dana Stevens of the online magazine Slate reviews The Business of Being Born. Stevens finds that the movie, like most homebirth advocacy, is biased, makes unsubstantiated claims, relies on "crackpots", and, in the end, is about a small group of women insisting their choices superior to those of other women.
The Business of Being Born, a documentary directed by Abby Epstein and produced by talk-show host Ricki Lake, is a generous-spirited tribute to the practice of home birth. It's full of moving (and surprisingly ungross) filmed deliveries, including those by Epstein and Lake themselves. Unfortunately, the movie is also a propagandistic brief on behalf of the home-birth movement that's so selective in its presentation of information that it makes Michael Moore look like a fat lady in a blindfold holding a pair of scales.
Stevens starts with the criticism that applies to almost all homebirth advocacy vehicles (books, websites, films):
... [T]his film's roster of talking heads (many of them professional advocates for the home-birth movement) compresses that whole range of experience into a simple either/or dichotomy: The sterile impersonality of hospital births (satirized in a clip from The Meaning of Life in which John Cleese shushes a laboring woman while demanding a nurse for "the machine that goes ping!") vs. the sacred beauty of laboring at home.
There's so much to critique about this documentary: its unacknowledged classism (Epstein and Lake, like all but one of the mothers whose births they document, are white women in a financial position to customize their birth experiences); its reliance on undocumentable claims (the crackpot French obstetrician Michel Odent's suggestion that women deprived of the "love cocktail" of hormones released by natural childbirth will be unable to nurture their babies, for example)...
What Stevens finds most annoying is what other women find most annoying, the insistence by homebirth advocates that their choices are better choices than those of other women.
What bugged me most about The Business of Being Born may have been Ricki Lake's insistence that home-birthing advocates, happy as they may be with their own experiences, know what's best for the rest of us. "So many women are missing this amazing opportunity and this life-altering experience," she lectures early on, explaining her motivation for making the film. But who's to say other kinds of births—in delivery rooms, ORs, or, God forbid, taxicabs—can't be amazing and life-altering too? Maybe some of us want our birth attendants to assure us, in the words of Epstein's midwife, Cara Muhlhaun, that they will be "the guardian of safety and the witness of your process." Others might prefer to hear something like, say, "I graduated first in my class at Johns Hopkins." Ultimately, the business of being born ain't nobody's business but our own.
The Business of Being Born, like most homebirth advocacy, relies on mistruths, half truths and outright lies. Ricki Lake is currently on the morning talk show circuit claiming "The fact that we have the second-worst infant mortality rate in the developed world is a statistic that I think people need to know about ..." The fact that we have one of the best perinatal mortality rates in the world is a statistic that she left out and probably doesn't even know.

Ultimately, the Business of Being Born, like most homebirth advocacy, is about some women falsely claiming superiority over other women.

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