New Play Gives Mother's Perspective on Birth

September 7, 2007

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Birth is the most universal experience; we're all born. But the circumstances surrounding this fundamental experience have changed over time. Today, doctors and insurance companies push for hospital births. But according to a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics, the maternal death rate is up in the U.S. for the second year in a row. This weekend the play Birth is being staged in Chicago. It questions why doctors often ignore mothers' wants.

Chicago Public Radio's Kristina Stevens reports on how the play is giving mothers a voice during labor.
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After the birth of her son, writer Karen Brody became interested in childbirth issues. She was disturbed that so many low-risk, educated women were routinely having what they called bad deliveries. An activist by nature, Brody channeled her outrage by starting research on a book. She interviewed more than one-hundred women. Along the way, she opted for a more dramatic approach.

BRODY: I started hearing the voices of these women so distinctly, I felt I needed to write it as a play.

The result is Birth.
 
BRODY: The play is unfortunately not filled with beautiful, empowering, my body rock's birth stories. That's because there aren't that many.

One story, however, portrays the ideal. 

BRODY: Amanda has a clear connection to herself. And she grabs on to a mantra, ‘my body rocks' which is how she really pushes her baby out in a hospital with out any intervention. 

'AMANDA': Here's another one. OOOOOOOWWWWWW MY BODY ROCKS. My body rocks.

But Brody says this birth is sadly atypical. And she places part of the blame on the media. 

BRODY: We're bombarded with this ‘birth as entertainment image. Birth is hysterical, out of control and that is unfortunate because many women, particularly one character in the play, her first birth was like that, because that's all she saw.

The character Jillian recalls how a scene form a 1950s sitcom was all the birth education she ever had.

'JILLIAN':  Have you ever seen that scene in ‘I love Lucy' where Lucy is pregnant and she decided she's in labor so she tells Desi “It's time” I love that scene. Desi starts running around shouting “It's time? You mean, it's time? And Lucy says, yes. It's time! Desi finally manages to get a taxi and then he rushes off to the hospital, forgetting Lucy. To me birth was all about the craziness.

Playwrite Brody says media and doctors' fear of malpractice have conspired to take away women's choice. 

BRODY: There's layers and layers of the politics of childbirth that silence women's voices, because in the end, what they want doesn't matter.

The character Natalie, whose doctor performs an episiotomy against her wishes is an example of a mothers' lack of choice. 

'NATALIE': Just before I went to push the baby's head out I felt something cold on my vagina. “NOOOOO don't cut me” I screamed. I begged. I pleaded. Please don't cut me. Please don't cut me. She cut me. My vagina will never be the same.
 
Companies producing Birth don't pay royalties. Each organization staging the play donates proceeds to local nonprofit organizations working to improve maternity care. Brody says last year, many performances unexpectedly sold out.

BRODY: it felt like a movement. Every place the play went it felt like people wanted a revolution. Now we're taking the power back. The success of Birth inspired Brody to create a global organization she calls BOLD, which stands for Birth On Labor Day. In addition to staging the play Birth, the organization, also runs discussion groups, a college outreach campaign and an online book club – all working to raise awareness of maternity care issues. Performances of Birth 2007 cover the globe. Brody credits the widespread success to the hundreds of volunteers performing and producing Birth. And she believes people in the audience will ultimately carry the message forward and help the BOLD mission succeed in making maternity care mother-friendly, worldwide.

I'm Kristina Stevens, Chicago Public Radio.