The Business of Being Born (Abby Epstein, 2008)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min
Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Format: Color, DVD

The Business of Being Born acts as a long-form argument for the expanding and liberalizing of the American birthing experience. The film follows Maya, one midwife, through a series of home births and private interviews. Meanwhile, we learn from spliced-in interviews with dozens of talking heads about the logistics of hospital births, startling statistics surrounding the probability of c-section, and the harrowing history of the birth experience in America. From the opening, Epstein makes it clear to us that we should question the hospital sterility of certain experts and return to a trust and knowledge of the woman’s body and intuition in birth. In this way, the film is somewhat necessarily gender essentializing, arguing for a natural, wise, and exceptionally gendered experience.

Epstein sets up a constant juxtapositional tug: the audience is swept back and forth from sterile, brightly lit, clearly suspect hospital interviews to graphic but ultimately victorious scenes of women’s home birth experiences. The sheer number of home births prominently featured in the film is impressive, most often including multiple cuts of interviews with the featured mother-to-be. More memorable than the home birth scenes, however, are the shots of hospital births presented. As various radical birth activists within the medical community narrate the seemingly impossible degree to which the typical hospital birth is unnatural, emotionally and literally scarring scenes of women in violent labor or graphic depictions of c-section procedures flash across the screen. Contrasting these scenes with Maya’s incredibly soothing, calm, and wise demeanor, it is clear whose side the audience is supposed to take.

Most interestingly, both Epstein and her producer, actress and talk show host Riki Lake, unexpectedly become pregnant over the course of shooting. The film features both women on screen prominently and often, tracing their own friendship and their prenatal planning. Garnering a lot of press was the scene in which Riki Lake appears totally nude in her own home giving birth, without makeup and shot on a home camcorder. The surprising normalcy of the scene, especially given the number of naked, graphic home-births featured earlier seems much more the point than does the shock value of a naked Riki Lake in labor. Epstein, too, decides on a home birth, but a rather surprising take-away message arises from her birthing experience. Her baby is in danger and premature, causing her, Lake(also present) and Maya to make the swift decision to transfer to the hospital where she delivers via emergency c-section, a procedure repeatedly demonized up until this point. We learn that Epstein’s baby was struggling with prenatal complications and that the c-section likely saved the baby. Only at this moment is the audience sure that the film acts not as a lengthy commercial for midwifery but as an engagement in a fraught argument, as Epstein struggles to reconcile her semi-traumatic birthing experience with the ultimately ideal outcome.

Watch the film on Netflix.

Further Reading:

Film Website:

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E.. Birth as an Americal Right of Passage. Berkely: University of California Press, 1992. Print.

Fox, Bonnie, and Diana Worts. “Revisiting the Critique of Medicalized Childbirth: A Contribution to the Sociology of Birth.” Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 326-346. Print.

Holden, Stephen . “American Motherhood and the Question of Home Birth.” The New York Times 8 Jan. 2009, sec. Movies: The New York Times Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

“International: Is there no place like home?; Home births. ” The Economist 2 Apr. 2011: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  26 Apr. 2011.

King,  Kathleen J.. “Interview with Abby Epstein, Director of The Business of Being Born – Page 2 – DivineCaroline .” DivineCaroline: Relationships, Health, Home, Style, Parenting, and Community for Women – DivineCaroline . N.p., 1 July 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Macdonald, Margaret. “Gender Expectations: Natural Bodies and Natural Births in the New Midwifery in Canada.” Medical Anthology Quarterly 20.2 (2006): 235-256. Print.

Martin, Karin A.. “Giving Birth like a Girl.” Gender and Society 17.1 (2003): 54-72. JStor. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Chloe Browne 2011

1 thought on “The Business of Being Born (Abby Epstein, 2008)

  1. Patricia White

    Excellent entry, Chloe. I like that it evaluates the way the film makes its argument, and the sources are fantastic. You might edit the phrase “question the hospital sterility” as it could be read as referring to actual sterile conditions.

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