Sunday, February 24, 2008

Birth, Truth, and Videotape

How was I born? How was I birthed? My mother is no longer here to ask. I’d like to think I would be brave enough to ask her, if she was still here on Earth with me. Birthing was not dinnertime or anytime discussion in my Catholic Latino household growing up in Saginaw. The same is true for most American households, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

It is an absurd, sad truth – for whatever complicated, personal reasons – that most Americans don’t discuss life’s two biggest topics: Birth and Death. And despite whatever artificial institutional and social embargoes that have been constructed – particularly by men, church, conservatives, and capitalists – these discussions among rational people are inevitable. Lately, I have been peeking around the curtain and listening, watching, and learning about women, the planet’s true sacred givers of human life.

I’m at a point, socially and politically, that I am simultaneously pro-life, pro-birth, and pro-choice. Our society needs to be more life-affirming, to reconstruct a more-than-adequate social system that supports procreation, and to trust and revere the woman’s role and wisdom in being life’s ultimate arbitrator. Despite man’s fierce, oppressive, and historical struggle to prevent its acknowledgement, women are the deciders and life givers.


Birth, babies, and pregnancy have been high profile topics in the movies lately. Prior to this weekend, I have been juxtaposing the messages contained in the movies "Knocked Up" and "Juno," two films that I highly recommend. I mark the former as one with a conservative bent and the latter leaning more to the left. Both movies leave the young women at the center of the birthing decision, paint the men as cartoon characters, and tell their story with humor and keen hipster language. While neither movie may satisfy some people, I was glad to see the topic brought to the big screen.

Tonight I will be cheering for Juno’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who is nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay. Cody’s smart use of humor and language has Juno announcing to the world at different junctures in the film, “I am a sacred vessel!” and “I’m a planet!” as flashes of truth rarely shared with such a wide audience.

Can we handle the truth? What happens when you remove the clowning and begin to look at stark reality?


This past weekend brought more cinematic complexity to the topic. A couple of weeks ago I had made plans to drive to the Maple Art Theater in Bloomfield Hills to see the controversial foreign film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days." Soon after making those plans, the Friends of the Greenhouse Birth Center announced a local showing of "The Business of Being Born." On Saturday I shuttled to both films on the same day. The film experience is one I’ll never forget.

The foreign film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," is about a woman’s decision to have an abortion and the punishing, oppressive, male-dominated system – represented by Romania in the late 1980s – in which the decision is made and carried out. Director Cristian Mungiu’s film provides an intimate, unflinching look at the woman’s quiet desperation. Right now the film is not getting wide distribution in the U.S., thus my drive to Bloomfield Hills on Saturday afternoon. You can probably guess why this widely-praised foreign film was not nominated for an Academy Award. Like I said, we can’t handle the truth.


Sitting in Room 147 of Michigan State University's Com Arts building for 3 hours on Saturday night was not very comfortable. The lecture hall seats must be designed to keep students awake. That night, however, I did not dare complain of my discomfort, having watched about six women give natural child birth in the documentary, “The Business of Being Born.” I’m not ashamed to say I almost cried with each birth shown. Like so many people – including large numbers of doctors and nurses – I had never seen anything more beautiful than a natural child birth, albeit on the movie screen.

The documentary, and the community discussion that followed, was a powerful lesson in Woman’s struggle to re-assert her primacy in the birthing process. It exposed the absurd proposition that women, especially American women, must struggle within an artificial, male-dominated system represented by doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies to experience what historically is their fundamental place as the earth’s life givers. The movie shows natural childbirth is anything but natural in the American medical system, which is dominated by and encourages cesarean sections, epidurals, and cocktails of dangerous drugs. The medical establishment has turned natural childbirth into a major medical emergency for almost every pregnant woman in America.

The movie has been described as the “Inconvenient Truth” of childbirth. I’ll agree with that assessment. But it could also be labeled as a sequel to Michael Moore’s SiCKO because it exposes a portion of our medical establishment that is unreasonable and out-of-control. It illustrates a system that cares more about profits than people.

The Friends of the Greenhouse Birth Center, and its partners at MSU, are to be commended for bringing “The Business of Being Born” to town. The movie should be viewed by parents, prospective parents, doctors, nurses, and, well, every American ever born. I’m not exaggerating. It was clearly acknowledged in the movie, and later during the panel discussion, that women rarely see other women having natural childbirth. Today’s women, as a result, are vulnerable to and frightened by a medical system that depends on fear. If you watch this movie and peek behind the curtain, you will find that history, health, and power reside with women.

-- Rico Thomas Rico

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