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Karen Brody Headshot

Childbirth as Protest Art? Done That

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Finally, the revolution to change childbirth practices is beginning to show its face. A pregnant mom in Brooklyn gives birth as a performance piece; another mom in Ottawa streams her birth live on the internet; The Feminist Breeder uses social media to tell us about her birth as it is happening. Is this all a narcissistic orgy to show off our births or is it an attempt to wake our culture up when it comes to giving birth?

My vote is that all this 'birth performance art' is signaling that it is time to wake up and smell what is really going on when it comes to giving birth today. A cesarean rate of over 30 percent is just one clue that the United States maternity care system is deeply flawed when it comes to assisting mothers to deliver their babies. This statistic alone underscores a fundamental assumption in childbirth today: that pregnant mothers are not qualified to deliver their babies. All you have to do is take a look at Monty Python's sketch depicting modern childbirth to know just how ridiculous it is to tell a pregnant woman in labor to push her baby out while lying on her back under bright lights hooked to machines that go ping. This scenario, repeated millions of times every year in maternity wards, makes it clear just how wrong our approach to birth is today.

It is not too surprising I feel there needs to be a revolution to change childbirth practices and that performance art could be the antidote we have been waiting for. I wrote a play about childbirth in America that paints a disturbing picture of the realities of giving birth today. When I was thinking about writing BIRTH I knew I wanted the play to be in the words of mothers and that they would give birth on stage. From the beginning when I workshopped the play my colleagues were shocked at the content. Giving birth on stage in front of a live audience? Mothers making deep, whale-like moaning sounds?

"You aren't really going to have a full production of this play, right?" one of the playwrights, a mother of three, asked me after class one evening.

"Yes, I am," I told her.

"But no one will come see it. They'll think it's gross."

"That is exactly why I am going to do it."

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Production of "BIRTH" in Montreal, Canada in 2010

It has been seven years since I stood in that parking lot. Today BIRTH has been seen by tens of thousands of people in four continents, ten countries, and is translated into three languages. Some audience members have dropped their jaws watching mothers open their legs wide and their push a baby out; others have cheered "my body rocks!" Some have covered their ears when women make birth sounds; others have closed their eyes and imagined "what if birth could be so sacred for me?" Some sit grossed out hearing a mom describe her cesarean section; others sit in gratitude feeling less alone that finally their story (or their sister's or friend's story) has been acknowledged with respect.

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Production of "BIRTH" in Maui, Hawaii, 2007

Many people ask me what point I want to make through using childbirth as performance art. The answer is simple: this time in history demands we be BOLD when we give birth. There is no right or wrong birth choice -- a mother can decide on a natural birth or feel she needs pain-relieving drugs -- but there is a choice. Right now pregnant mothers are making no choices when it comes to childbirth. They are sleepwalking 1950s housewives brainwashed into thinking they are not qualified to deliver their babies and submitting to a medical system that is forgetting how to help women deliver babies beyond surgery.

It is definitely time to be BOLD, pregnant mothers.

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Production of "BIRTH" in Chicago, Illinois, 2007

And that is exactly why I believe a few pregnant mothers are using performance art to further the cause of preserving our memory and reverence for normal birth. Everyone is asking: is it gross? Is it wrong? I believe there is a more important question to ask and that is: is it necessary at this time in the history of childbirth?

Absolutely.