Maternal Mortality Is Spiking At An Alarming Rate. A New Documentary Uncovers Why.

“Born Free: Birth in America” investigates why the U.S. is a dangerous place to give birth — and it’s only getting worse.
Filmmaker Paula James-Martinez released her documentary "Born Free: Birth in America" in May.
Filmmaker Paula James-Martinez released her documentary "Born Free: Birth in America" in May.
Paula James-Martinez, "Born Free: Birth in America"

Like many women, Paula James-Martinez experienced a rush of emotion when she became a mother for the first time in 2018. The longtime journalist’s new role as a parent, however, also gave her an impetus for a remarkable — and deeply personal — career pivot.

A British native, James-Martinez unveiled her first-ever foray into feature filmmaking this year with “Born Free: Birth in America.” Released on Mother’s Day (May 14) and available for free on several video streaming platforms, the new documentary follows James-Martinez as she ventures cross-country to examine the many unsettling reasons why the U.S. is the most expensive — and most dangerous — nation to give birth in the developed world.

“When you become pregnant, or you are with your partner who’s expecting a child, you suddenly open up a world of new information and you go down the wormhole, but until that point, you never think about it,” said James-Martinez, who is based in Los Angeles and previously worked for Dazed magazine and Refinery29, among other outlets. “And when I had my baby, I was like: ‘How did I not know about this? I’m a women’s magazine editor ― if I don’t know, no one knows.’”

Watch the trailer for “Born Free: Birth in America” below.

“So I wanted to find a way to get this information in front of people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to access it otherwise, or might not even feel like they were interested,” she continued. “You can’t advocate for yourself without having the education to do so.”

“Born Free” features candid testimonies from an array of parents who say they experienced birth trauma, including one woman who says she was given an episiotomy ― an incision performed to make the opening of the vagina wider for childbirth ― against her will.

The statistics presented in the documentary align with a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association last month, which found that maternal deaths in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2019. The study also noted that Black mothers died at the nation’s highest rates.

Among those interviewed in the film is Charles Johnson IV, a Black man whose wife, Kira, bled to death in 2016 after delivering the couple’s second son, Langston, via caesarean section.

Charles Johnson IV (right) spoke to James-Martinez for "Born Free: Birth in America."
Charles Johnson IV (right) spoke to James-Martinez for "Born Free: Birth in America."
via Associated Press

Two years after Kira’s death, Johnson filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, arguing that the hospital’s staff would have better prioritized his wife’s condition if she was white. A federal investigation into the allegations was launched last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s easy for people to dismiss and go: ‘Oh well, it’s due to people not taking care of themselves or eating the right food,’ but if you actually break down the data, that isn’t true,” James-Martinez told HuffPost. “It doesn’t matter their income or education level: when it comes to Black women birthing, the rates are just disproportionately bad.”

The release of “Born Free” also inadvertently coincides with the 15-year anniversary of “The Business of Being Born,” a documentary produced by Ricki Lake that also explored the contemporary experience of childbirth. There are distinct parallels between the films, both of which explicitly endorse the use of midwives, a practice that’s become increasingly rare in the U.S.

A still from "Born Free: Birth in America."
A still from "Born Free: Birth in America."
Paula James-Martinez, "Born Free: Birth in America"

“They tell a slightly different side of the story in theirs, but we’ve shown the films together and we’ve shown up for each other,” James-Martinez said of Lake and the 2008 film’s director, Abby Epstein. “They tried to have this conversation 15 years ago, and it was actually much harder for them because the appetite for this type of conversation was very different when they had it.”

Noting that the discourse surrounding maternal mortality has become “much more politicized, much more life-or-death” in the years since “The Business of Being Born” was released, James-Martinez would like both films to continue to be shown in tandem, “so that we can go: ‘This is where we started, and this is how much worse it’s got.’”

“We’re all heading toward the same goal,” she added, “and we’re both pushing for choice and accountability and listening to women.”

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