‘The Business of Birth Control’ (2021) DOC NYC Review: An Unbalanced Argument Against Contraceptives

Jane Alexander, whose daughter Lauren died from a pulmonary embolism. Image courtesy of DOC NYC.

Birth control pills have been revolutionary in the fight for women’s reproductive justice. After the introduction of the pill, women gained equal footing in the workplace and community. Abby Epstein’s documentary The Business of Birth Control, which premiered at DOC NYC Film Festival, highlights the dangers that women are exposed to when they take hormonal contraceptives. While the documentary highlights the side effects, the lack of information regarding the pill that is being passed from physician to patient as well as the dangerous outcomes of hormonal contraceptives, suggest that the documentary is significantly one-sided.

The Business of Birth Control consists of questions asked by the filmmaker to strangers on the streets, regarding whether these women are aware of what kind of brand of contraceptives they use when they were first prescribed to it by their physicians and for what purpose. As the documentary progresses, it begins to explain that women are unaware of the side effects of contraceptive pills, especially when it comes to symptoms that may be life-threatening for them. According to the documentary, hormonal contraceptives are risky and women are in more danger than they are aware of due to increased exposure to several health issues. These issues progress towards blood clots which may lead to heart attacks, autoimmune diseases, depression and anxiety. Through these interviews, women are asked if they ever had mood swings or debilitating mental illnesses which made them self-destructive. Unsurprisingly, several women that were interviewed mentioned that when they started taking the pill, their depression worsened to the point where they felt suicidal.

There are varying opinions on how hormonal birth control pills affect people’s mood swings. Sometimes, the pill worsens their mood swings, depression and anxiety, while others’ improves. According to Clue, when a person takes hormonal birth control, it has the possibility of changing the natural levels of hormones in that person’s body. This is why hormonal changes can be a factor in the risk of depression. Additionally, women are more likely to be going through depression during puberty. Other factors that could lead to depression include societal factors as well as a history of psychiatric conditions, which would mean that the person might be more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

But what is gravely concerning and a perspective that is never heard from, is how hormonal contraceptives endanger women’s lives. Epstein interviews families who were impacted by the loss of their daughters succumbing to heart attacks. The families share that these women were on different contraceptives methods when they passed away. These negative risks have affected these families both emotionally and mentally. Their concerns were that the leaflet has too much information or doesn’t necessarily highlight the risk factors of taking the pills. Of course, precautions are mentioned on the exterior design of the box to let consumers know the kind of dangers that they will face if they are not careful. As Epstein explores what can be prevented to let women know about the risks, the parents propose workshops and better information letting people know about them.

Colette Bernard carries her artwork entitled, “The Burden of Birth Control”. Image courtesy of DOC NYC.

Another point that Epstein explores by interviewing women and medical professionals, is how women aren’t aware of the risk factors. Per the documentary, physicians don’t share the proper information about hormonal contraceptives with their patients and consequently, women are not aware of their purpose nor how it helps them. Several women reported experiences of physicians dismissing them or not taking their concerns seriously, which has been noted as a common practice in medical communities around the globe. This isn’t to say that all doctors are like this, but the general understanding that the documentary is trying to express is that doctors are negligent of their patients and that women aren’t doing enough research on their own. This is also where the documentary falters.

While all of these concerns are valid, The Business of Birth Control uses the majority of its runtime to highlight only the negative aspects of hormonal contraceptives. The documentary rarely mentions that birth control pills are helpful for women who are diagnosed with PCOS and endometriosis. With patients who are treating PCOS, hormonal pills help manage symptoms such as painful periods, excessive body hair, acne, diabetes, and fertility problems. This goes the same for patients dealing with endometriosis. Yet, the documentary primarily promotes the perception that women only want to take the pill because it gets rid of acne or that it is the solution to every problem in their lives.

Epstein explores hard-hitting issues within the medical-industrial complex, and how the market pushes women to prescribe these contraceptives. It also highlights Margaret Sanger’s history and fascination with eugenics, and how she targeted lower-class women to take the pill. The Planned Parenthood founder has been known for their controversial history which is also linked to racism. She advocated for the elimination of races and gradual extinction because it threatened the future of American society.

While these aspects of the birth control movement are important to let the audience know, the documentary comes off as significantly biased by failing to explore both the negatives and the positives. It’s obvious that Epstein aims to highlight the problems, but based on the content of the documentary, it is evident that it is trying to generate fear among women towards outcomes with information that is easily accessible. There is a wide range of readily available contraceptives and if one contraceptive doesn’t work, there is another option that could work, but all of this depends on what the physicians say and what suits the patient best.

Because of this one-sided perspective, The Business of Birth Control is partial when it comes to exploring the dangers of hormonal contraceptives for women. Something to think about is, how does this documentary help a woman who wants to take hormonal contraceptives? It doesn’t. In the end, The Business of Birth Control seems as though it was trying to forcefully change someone’s mind by possibly highlighting the dangers more, rather than the good.

Edited by: Raayaa Imthiyaz

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