Monday, April 27, 2009

feminism and the poltics of child birth

I remember one of the first events on campus that really made me want to get involved with women's issues in a more physical sense, that is, beyond simply theory. This was a screening of a film titled "The Business of Being Born," sponsored by Students Advocating Reproductive Options, Students for Life and the Pre-Health Club during the end of my freshman year. I was urged to go by a friend who was graduating that year under a self-designed major (I forget the exact title of it) concerning women's well-being. She wanted to be a midwife. I guess that before seeing the film, I hadn't really thought of the politics involved in the process of giving birth, and I'll admit that it certainly fueled much of my interest in feminist activism.
The film provided an interesting look at the process of child birth and its nature as a business in our country, an issue that is rarely given attention in the media. It focuses on the birth experience in the United States as often being cold and calculated and suggests that women are often left in the dark concerning the various options available to them. It does this by contrasting natural methods of childbirth with the hospital operation delivery method that seems to be most commonly employed in contemporary American society.
In presenting these themes, the film raises many difficult questions which have been avoided in the media and among medical practitioners which it proceeds to attempt to answer. For example, why the infant and maternal mortality rates in the US are the second worst in the world in comparison with other developed countries. Why midwives deliver 60-80% of all births in other developed countries, but only 8% in the United States. Why the cesarean rate in America is so high, particularly when compared to other countries which have a much lower cesarean rate but much better overall outcome. Why so many mothers state that they experienced dissatisfaction with their birth experience or maternity care. Why so many American births occur in hospitals. Why the main attitude towards birth is rooted in fear, versus trust and normalcy.
It questions, most specifically, why people do not more commonly ask these questions and rather treat them as though it were a taboo subject. It deals with quite a bit of information, though was able to do so in a relatively ordered and accessible manner, showing the negative cycle resulting from medicated childbirth which usually ends in a caesarean, the manner in which media depicts birth and links it with fear, insurance issues, malpractice issues, and most interestingly, suggesting possible results of disturbing the “love cocktail” of hormones that exist in unmedicated births which ensures bonding and secures the maternal instinct.
The film opens as a homebirth midwife prepares to head out to a birth. The footage is shown interspersed with individuals discussing their own perceptions of midwifery and midwives, many of them unfamiliar with the work and assuming them to be unqualified or unreliable. I think one of the most interesting elements of this film is that it presents the culture in which we live as one that places science and the medical realm above all else, so much that we often miss out on the experiences and sensations in life which make us human. The act of given birth is treated as a problem that must be fixed, in a medical sense, rather than a natural process that has occurred since the beginning of life.
What the film is particularly successful at showing is the great number of unmedicated births that it shows. It makes the viewer take note of the manner in which childbirth, a natural and commonplace practice, has been taken out of the public realm, out of the home and out of society and into the hospital, confined and sterilized, as if to suggest it to be something anomic.
It also visually presents the woman in a greater state of power and strength. Television and film depictions of women giving birth do so in a manner which makes them appear passive and victimized to an affliction with which they must ‘deal.’ Similarly, hospital-based childbirth presents women on their backs, strapped down with tubing and medication, dramatically screaming in pain. The many examples of natural childbirth in the film present the women in a greater position of control, both in their knowledge and choice provided amidst numerous options, as well as in the physical act of delivery. They are shown strong, determined and in control.

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