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Storytelling for Social Change: Birthing Justice, a Landmark Reproductive Justice Documentary Centering Black Birth

Bintou Diarra, A.B Candidate | Medical Anthropology, Brown University | December 15, 2022

Childbirth is a distinct emotional and physical experience for all involved. This makes it a significant milestone in the lives of many. 

For some birthing people, the experience of bringing another into the world is positively memorable. Their providers prioritize their physical, psychological, and emotional needs at every step of their reproductive journey.

Unfortunately, this sentiment does not mirror the reality of the birthing experience of many others. The current conditions of birthing in the United States paint a bleak picture—one of both negative circumstances as they stand, and a worsening crisis.

It is more dangerous for birthing people in the United States to give birth today than it was 30 years ago. What’s worse, the manifestation of poor maternal health outcomes are not uniform. Black birthing people in particular are two to three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white birthing people.

Birthing Justice, a feature length documentary from Women in the Room Productions, not only acknowledges the worsening maternal health crisis, but it also unpacks its roots. In upholding this goal, the documentary not only examines the medical establishment, but it also investigates neighboring structures that contribute to health and wellbeing. Denise Pines, co-founder of Women in the Room Productions, explains: “In this documentary we examine the structures and systems that determine these mortality rates as well as the progress being made by health initiatives, dedicated practitioners and best practices.”

Birthing Justice does not merely call for the survival of Black birthing people and their infants. It demands the refinement of our systems to allow for Black birthing experiences that are empowering, rather than traumatic.

The film highlights both the interpersonal and structural dimensions of the maternal health crisis by naming the detrimental effects of racism in patient-provider interactions, and the accumulated, somatic effects of racist policies and experiences on the bodies of Black birthing people. Additionally, it touches on the long-standing effects of reports such as The Flexner Report, which introduced new standards of accreditation that 1) eliminated medical schools that primarily served Black people, and 2) created new standards of care founded on eugenics, capitalism, and patriarchy.

These nascent standards of care continue to negatively impact Black women and infants of varying backgrounds, a fact which Birthing Justice underscores in their exploration of Black birthing experiences. The film touches on the persistence of poor maternal health outcomes and conditions among Black birthing people of great wealth and physical fitness—factors which are thought to contribute to optimal health and wellness. It calls attention to the experiences of women like 11-time olympic medalist Allyson Felix, who was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 32 weeks, and Black birthing people in the United States’ hardest-hit communities, like Washington, DC.

Black birthing people’s fight does not stop with pregnancy and delivery. In its exploration of the maternal health crisis, the film does not shy away from naming the role of faulty policies in contributing to negative experiences with parenting. Commensurate with the severity of reproductive health metrics is the persistence of notions of individualism in America. The United States is among the few well-developed nations that do not offer a national paid parental-leave program, which often renders new parenthood equally as traumatic as the birthing experience for many Black birthing people.

The Birthing Justice documentary is just as much an assertion as it is a call to action. As the film hones in on the tireless efforts of community workers, health practitioners, doulas and midwives working to create positive experiences for Black birthing people, it unveils what is both possible and necessary. The head goal, says Pines, is “to see the solutions in the documentary replicated nationally”. The film offers a lens into what patient-centered care looks like and uplifts the midwifery tradition as one of the solutions we have to birth with dignity, autonomy and in safety. We meet Ebony Marcelle, CNM, the Director of Midwifery at Community of Hope in Washington D.C. who is creating a space for Black birthing people to receive comprehensive support along the perinatal continuum including delivery at their birth center. 

Birthing Justice is a full-scope analysis of the United States’ maternal health crisis. It uncovers the complexity of the current state of affairs and emphasizes the significance of intensive solutions. Ultimately, the film leaves viewers with a sense of hope in the fight to create a more equitable future for Black birthing people. 

Watch the trailer for Birthing Justice Below

Learn more about Birthing Justice.

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