When Ricki Lake was giving birth six years ago to her second son, Owen, she wasn’t thinking about ever sharing the video taken of the joyous event with the public. If she had considered that possibility, she said with a laugh Thursday on TODAY, things would have been different.
“I would have had better lighting, I would have removed the shampoo bottles, and I would have worn a top,” she quipped.
The “birth experience,” as she calls it, ended up in her new documentary, “The Business of Being Born,” which debuted on Wednesday to positive reviews.
The film follows the actress and former talk show host as she decides to have the delivery at home attended by a midwife and also documents other births, both at home and in hospital birthing centers.
It’s already stirring controversy as well as criticism from the medical community, which feels maligned by Lake’s advocacy of giving birth at home, a course chosen by just 1 percent of American women.
“This movie is not about hospitals versus home,” Lake told TODAY’s Ann Curry in New York. “I’m raising some really major questions about the medical system and whether it’s really servicing mothers and babies as well as it could.”
The United States, she said, has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world.
According to “The CIA World Factbook,” Singapore led the world with an infant mortality rate of 2.30 per 1,000 live births, followed by Sweden with a rate of 2.76 and Japan at 2.80. The United States’ rate of 6.37 ranked just 37th, behind South Korea and Cuba and just ahead of Croatia. The highest mortality rate was in Angola, where the rate is 184.44 deaths for every 1,000 births.
“The fact that we have the second-worst infant mortality rate in the developed world is a statistic that I think people need to know about,” she said. “We are the richest country in the world and the technology that we have is amazing today. Women in their 40s and even in their 50s can get pregnant today and carry children and deliver, babies are living at 23 weeks gestation. It’s amazing the strides we’ve made. But in that process, we’ve lost normal birth.”
Lake was still hosting her long-running talk show when she became pregnant and started to research home birth. Her first child, Milo, was born in 1997 with the aid of a midwife in a birth center. Her second, she decided, would be born at home.
“I felt through my second birth — all the research and finding out what I found out — having my baby at home was incredibly empowering,” she said, adding quickly, “Not that the other one wasn’t.”
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She also fought off suggestions that she believes that all women should give birth at home.
“I’m not saying women aren’t empowered when they have their epidural, when they have their C-section, and I don’t judge any woman for any choice they make when it comes to their body,” she told Curry. “I just feel like I had information that I felt my friends and people around me didn’t have access to.”
Home births rare in U.S.
Home births and midwives are more common in Japan and Europe than in the United States, where just 8 percent of all births are attended by midwives, most of those in hospital birthing centers.
“Midwives are an amazing profession,” she said. “I think they make amazing sacrifices for women, for their patients.”
Curry noted that critics in the medical community feel that giving birth at home exposes women to unnecessary risks. Indeed, one of the women in “The Business of Being Born,” the film’s director, Abby Epstein, had to be rushed to a hospital while attempting to give birth at home because of a breech delivery.
“I don’t see it as unnecessary risks,” Lake said. “I had a low-risk pregnancy. My midwife was incredibly trained. I think it’s about the consumer, the mom-to-be, the family, to make the best choice for them. I’m not telling them to do what I did. It’s not about that. It’s about doing your homework and caring about the process of birth.”
The film has many scenes of births both at home and in hospitals, including a C-section. The scenes of women giving birth at home are particularly striking. “It’s really important for women today to see how amazing these women are during their birth experience, when they’re completely able to move around and labor on their own. It’s mind-blowing,” Lake said. “The reaction we’re getting is mostly extremely positive.”
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