As any new parent knows, no matter how nice the maternity ward, the process of giving birth amid a hospital's sterile bureaucracy still tends to be far from comfortable or comforting. Women work out birth plans with their OB/GYN, and then the day comes, the doctor is on vacation, the ward is crowded, and the hospital staffers attending the birth rush in and out, trying to wrest control from the mother so they can use drugs and surgical implements to get the whole procedure done quickly. The result in recent years has been a consistent rise in labor complications, and more and more babies spending an extra day or two in the ICU with elevated heart rates and other birth-related problems.
It's hard to dispute the argument for midwives and home birth made by director Abby Epstein and producer Ricki Lake in their labor-of-love documentary The Business Of Being Born. The film begins by pointing out that 70 percent of births in Europe and Japan are supervised by midwives—versus around 5 percent in the U.S.—and it shows a variety of home births, offering the opinions of an impressive number of experts about how much safer, healthier, and more rewarding working with a midwife is. Perhaps the most damning testimony in the film comes from med students and obstetric nurses, who express their skepticism about home births, before admitting they've never witnessed one, or been given any information about them as part of their medical training. The wretched system that presently exists is thriving because of an absence of open conversation about options.
The Business Of Being Born is more propaganda than cinema, and at an hour and a half, its exhaustiveness diminishes its impact. But Epstein anchors the film nicely with her own pregnancy, which occurs while the documentary is in production and comes to an unexpected conclusion before shooting ends. She resists the urge to make herself the story, or to turn this into one of those annoying first-person documentaries. Instead, she focuses on a barrage of anecdotes and compelling statistics. As issue docs go, The Business Of Being Born is about as well-put-together and non-aggravating as the genre can get—which isn't saying much, but it's still a small victory.