Health

The Real Agenda Of "The Business Of Birth Control" Documentary

By Sophia Berryhill
·  6 min read
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In 2008, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein released their first documentary titled “The Business of Being Born.” This documentary examined the increasing medicalization of birth, uncovered unknown risks of giving birth in the hospital, and addressed the high maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States. Almost 15 years later in 2022, their new documentary, “The Business of Birth Control,” explores another important topic in women’s health: the pill.

The Business of Birth Control highlights the historical narrative of the birth control pill and real-life stories of the negative ramifications of its use. Further, the film offers an alternative in fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs) which has sparked controversies among pro-hormonal contraception groups, feminists, and medical practitioners who hold fast to the belief that the pill is the only beacon of hope to empower women. But is the rallying cry of these groups really doing the most to empower women? Or, is this response making women believe they can’t trust themselves and their own bodies to monitor their fertility? 

Uncovering the Reality of Birth Control

The documentary features the stories of activists, doctors, and scientists with insight into the complicated history of the pill. These figures include Dr. Jolene Brighten (author of Beyond the Pill) and Dr. Sarah Hill (author of This Is Your Brain on Birth Control), who affirm findings in numerous studies showing women who take the pill suffer from higher rates of depression, more intense mood swings, and even changes in partner attraction

Through the intersection of women’s health, neuroscience, and history, the film shows how much the birth control pill has impacted women since its development in the 1960s. It highlights the dark history of eugenics and racism of Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, the unethical clinical trials performed on Puerto Rican women, and the lack of information provided by the pharmaceutical companies producing hormonal contraception. 

The documentary highlights the pill's history of eugenics and racism, plus the unethical clinical trials.

In response to the pill’s negative health impacts and unsettling history, The Business of Birth Control calls for more and better options for women with fewer side effects, empowering women to make their own choices regarding their fertility without the potential risk of sacrificing their mood, personality, sex drive, ovulation, and, in rare (but real) cases, their life

When 10.6 million women are using the pill in the United States, the side effects, risks, and impacts on women’s lives shouldn’t be ignored – and that is what the filmmakers want to call attention to. 

The “Agenda” of The Business of Birth Control 

A response article by Rolling Stone accuses Lake and Epstein of espousing a hidden agenda against hormonal contraception and toward natural forms of birth control. The Rolling Stone author claims that the documentary’s assessment of birth control risks “have no scientific backing” and that the filmmakers are spreading harmful misinformation to viewers.

By The Business of Birth Control highlighting real-life stories of families who lost their daughters, sisters, and friends to serious side effects of the birth control pill, including blood clots and strokes, publications like Rolling Stone are labeling this fear-mongering and dangerous.

Rolling Stone interviewed many OB/GYNs who were not fans of the documentary’s critique of birth control. One physician accused the filmmakers of pushing a political agenda more than caring about people and their decisions. Further, the physicians interviewed said that the fertility-awareness method, even though it’s 99% effective with perfect use, has a “huge range” of effectiveness and is “too much work” for women to keep up with. This rhetoric is dangerous because it belittles women and convinces them that they can’t trust themselves and their bodies. 

Education, empowerment, and informed consent are the only “agendas” these filmmakers have.

Similarly, The Cut recently published a review where they admitted to the project’s validity: “The project, The Business of Birth Control, raises some legitimate questions about informed consent: Do individuals taking hormonal birth control fully understand how it works and its potential side effects, and do they know what rare complications – like an increased risk of blood clots – to watch for?” However, they conclude that the documentary’s “fear-mongering” tactics “undermine these valid observations.” 

Further, The Cut believes that this documentary “claims to extol a version of feminist empowerment in which women should trust ourselves to become our own contraceptive experts. But its real message instead threatens to damage the trust that women put in our doctors, and in our very experience of our selves.” This refutation ironically affirms the documentary’s goal: to educate and empower women about their cycles to understand how much control they have over their fertility and reproductive health.

The Filmmakers’ Response to Backlash 

Since these criticisms were published, Lake and Epstein continue to defend the documentary’s ultimate goal “to empower people to make informed decisions about their health.” 

What the documentary points out is how the pill has become a “catch-all” for a variety of things women experience from acne, cramps, PMS, cycle irregularity, and more. When women are put on the pill, many are not able to give fully informed consent regarding the possible side effects or conditions they experience while taking it.

Dr. Aviva Romm, an MD, midwife, and herbalist, affirms the filmmakers’ desire to educate women on their reproductive health and echoes their concerns about over-prescribing the pill. “Unfortunately most of the docs handing out prescriptions for these pills aren’t taking the time to assess a patient's risk before prescribing it, nor are they educating prospective users on the effects that they have on our bodies, minds, and overall health.

Side effects of the pill brought forward by women are often minimized by doctors and women’s health providers.

In a podcast hosted by Mayim Bialik in March 2021, Lake and Epstein reiterate their frustration with the misinterpretation of the documentary. Epstein clarifies, “We’re not saying take away hormonal birth control from at-risk populations or from anybody who freely wants to use it, but let’s just give some real information around this and present alternatives.” 

In an interview with the Today Show, Ricki Lake states, “I want women to have access to the information…I really wanted people to be educated about these drugs that we’ve been taking since our grandmother had the pill. The pill was invented in the ‘60s, and thank God we have the pill, but there’s a lot to consider when you're putting something in your body for sometimes decades.”

Education, empowerment, and informed consent are the only “agendas” these filmmakers have, unlike what the opposing articles have claimed. 

Closing Thoughts

The Business of Birth Control is a must-see documentary to truly understand the reasons to consider all the options beyond hormonal birth control. The film challenges the narrative we’ve been made to believe about having to control our fertility exclusively through hormonal methods. Side effects of the pill brought forward by women are often minimized by doctors and women’s health providers – making it even more important to educate yourself to make the best decision about contraception. 

Despite the buzzing skepticism and controversies around The Business of Birth Control, this film offers a deep dive into the pill that is worth viewing for yourself, your health, and the well-being of millions of women in the United States. 

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