Review: The Business of Birth Control

Directed by Abby Epstein and based on the book by Holly Grigg-Spall, once seen as the drug that revolutionised women’s emancipation, the politics of hormonal birth control has a more troubling history.

It’s well known by this point that the words transparency and healthcare industry don’t exactly go hand in hand. You’d hope that when giving patients medication, doctors would make them aware of the risks but typically you’re just expected to find out via the lengthy, and expertly folded, slip of paper inside your prescription box. Expecting people to read it is ridiculous but its existence is all that’s needed to claim that you’re aware of the side effects, it’s little more than a loophole realistically. It begs the question of why are you expected to read pages of painfully tiny text, rather than trusting your doctor and the system in place to ensure medications are safe? All of which leads to The Business of Birth Control’s key point, which is the importance of awareness and education, literally boiling down to the old adage, knowledge is power. This film is emphasising how vital it is to know your body, and what it needs, to find the best path. It’s not out to tell you what you should or shouldn’t choose, but rather to demonstrate how common it is for women to be left in the dark or fobbed off with simple solutions when it comes to reproductive health.

Abby Epstein really dives into the unseen side-effects of hormonal birth control, including the deaths of several young women. Where you might be expecting something purely political and educational, Epstein hits harder than that. It’s tough to see these families who have had their daughters torn away from them, left with endless questions of how it happened and why is it possible at all?. It’s also slightly horrifying to learn the evolution of the pill, and women being used as guinea pigs, as well as taking advantage of poor communities. There’s then a whole other conversation to be had about eugenics and some of the concerning motivations for the pill, which are far from about empowering women. It scratches the surface to lend a larger context to the conversation, but there isn’t the time for a deep dive into the history. Instead it focuses on how technological advancements can help us understand our bodies more accurately and find the best way to take care of them, particularly capitalising on less pharmaceutical options.

While there is a genuine sadness and darker side to this story, as it gets towards its end it turns to a more hopeful feel. Outlining the multitude of options available and the wealth of information that’s at our fingertips today, versus in the early days of birth control being available. Abby Epstein, alongside editors Anne Alvergue and Kristen Nutile, bring this variety together in a way where the information feels like it’s following a straight, progressive path but it’s also constantly moving around. It doesn’t get stuck on one vein for too long, it successfully weaves together different stories and perspectives. The style makes this a more personal documentary, yes it’s political and informational but it focuses on individuals to give it a more specific lens, which is very well done considering it’s a topic that affects millions of women.

The Business of Birth Control champions the importance of awareness and education. Highlighting the shocking amount of women who are handed a medication without being made fully aware of its side-effects and alternative methods. It brings together different perspectives from today, as well as the history of birth control, to encourage women to take charge of their health, to be aware of their options and figure out what’s best for them. It’s easy to see that many may misunderstand this film as a battle cry at big pharma but Abby Epstein creates a clear message, women’s health should be an open and ongoing conversation to make sure there are always safe and healthy options.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Reviewed as part of Sheffield DocFest 2022 – Find additional info here

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