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Reviewed Publisher: 
Winner 1994 Telly Award for Best Medical Documentary. Global Maternal/Child Health Association, Inc. P. O. Box 400, Wilsonville OR 97070. 503/682-3600.
Reviewed Title: 
Gentle Birth Choices
Publication Date: 
October, 1995
Starting Page: 
Page Count: 

This video is an excellent teaching tool for pregnant couples who are wondering what kind of birth they should choose, as well as for anyone who wonders why some women today want to bother with natural childbirth, when the elimination of pain is just a hospital away. The video stands alone, but would also make an excellent visual adjunct to producer Barbara Harper's new book, Gentle Birth Choices (Healing Arts Press, Rochester VT, 1994).

Contextualizing today's natural childbirth movement against the background of the scopolamine births of yesteryear, this film brings us the faces and voices of six mothers who made gentle birth choices, and of four midwives-Mary Jackson, Director of the Santa Barbara Midwives, Maggie Bennett, President of the California Midwives' Association, Mary McNeese, CNM, and Linda Church, CNM. These women speak strongly and eloquently for the advantages of midwife-attended home- and birth-center births, but no words can be stronger than the powerful images of the six mothers giving birth. The camera work during these births is excellent-we do not miss the expressions on their faces (agony, concentration, pride, joy), their experimentation with different positions, the slow crowning of the baby's head, or the sudden, always miraculous emergence of the entire body. None of these newborns are taken away from their mothers-all have immediate contact, and the viewer is gifted with the wonderful treat of watching the mother, father, and child fall in love.

Indeed, one of the video's exceptional strengths is its attention to the presence and role of the father at birth. We see these men in total physical involvement with their wives, holding them up, rubbing their backs, kissing them, cutting the cord, and cradling both newborn and mother in their strong arms. One particularly beautiful image that sticks in my mind is that of a woman near forty, with an 18-year-old daughter, laboring forehead to forehead with her husband, then stopping to smile and nod at him at the contraction's end with a look of reassurance, gratitude, connection, love.

Gentle Birth Choices strikes a harmonious balance between the affective and the intellectual, through the judicious interspersal of information bytes from male experts, including Marsden Wagner of the World Health Organization, renowned author and home birth obstetrician Michel Odent, and Michael Rosenthal MD, who directed the Family Birth Center in Upland, California for ten years. They speak of the overwhelming evidence in favor of the safety of midwife-attended birth around the world, and the equally compelling evidence against routine hospital procedures such as over-reliance on electronic fetal monitors. A particularly successful technique utilized in this video is to run letters across the screen describing various medical myths ("Once a Cesarean, always a Cesarean"; "Children do not belong at birth"; "Women over 35 are at higher risk") and then to show those myths being debunked as a woman with a Cesarean scar gives birth vaginally, children watch intently as a baby is born, an older woman labors peacefully in a hot tub. The pervasive myth that "Newborn babies do not feel pain" is addressed head-on with the issue of circumcision, as Marilyn Milos, RN and founder of NOCIRC, eloquently describes the pain caused by this unnecessary operation.

The video presents a range of gentle birth experiences, including a painful posterior labor, birth in standing, squatting, and sitting positions, birth on the floor in a hands-and-knees position, water labor, water birth, and a birth in which the cord is so tight around the baby's neck that it has to be cut before birth. We watch this particular newborn being resuscitated by his mother's side, and learn that such complications do not require a hospital to be successfully treated.

The overall impression this video creates for the viewer is one of birth as intense, absorbing, painful, and hard work that is also immensely and enormously rewarding, and well within women's capacity to do. How odd that, after 80, 000 years of human females giving birth in just this way, in our "highly evolved" society of the 1990s, we need to be reminded of this simple fact. The images of the women reaching out to husbands and to the midwives for support, and of the immediacy and compelling intimacy with which that support is offered, graphically demonstrate that the epidural is not the only way to cope with the pain of labor.

We see and hear the women questioning themselves and their attendants "Can I do this? Can anyone really do this? It's hard." We see the nurturing they receive, and we watch them move from the question to the affirmation "I can do this! I am doing it! I am giving birth!" - an affirmation that is especially poignant when it comes from a woman who had two previous cesareans, and now is giving birth vaginally at home. Standing, she pushes her baby out, then sits down to hold him, glowing and triumphant and thrilled both with her baby and her accomplishment. As I watch, I remember my own sense of triumph at the same accomplishment, and the inestimable worth of the confidence I gained from facing a seemingly impossible task-more pain than I (thought I) could bear, more muscular effort than I (thought I) could muster-and succeeding. In some cultures, women are honored and praised for such an achievement. Watching the women in this video, we know that they need no praisethey have looked deep inside themselves for courage, and strength, and perseverance, and have found those treasures to be a part of who they are.

I highly recommend this video. I have discussed it with many women, and find that it awakens in them both the desire to tap their own wellsprings of power as they give birth, and the conviction that they can!