Abby Epstein

Abby Epstein

With all this talk of the Menstrual Revolution ("free bleeding", revoking the tampon tax, the cover of Newsweek) and the exciting new projects that are a part of it (our friends at Thinx and Conscious Period to name few) we can't help but feel like an essential piece has been left out of the equation;  the fact that so many women in America aren't cycling at all.  In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 4 out of every 5 sexually experienced women have used the pill and in 2012 close to 11 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 were on some kind of hormonal birth control.  

We are very honored to chat with Abby Epstein -director of the game-changer documentary The Business of Being Born- about her and partner Ricki Lake's newest film project: Sweetening the Pill - a documentary inspired by Holly Grigg-Spall’s book of the same name, which investigates the health and safety of hormonal birth control.

So here is Abby telling us how she was born, her own hormonal birth control journey, and the labor of making this controversial film.

How were you born?

I was due on Jan. 10th but I was born on Jan. 20th. My mom said she was 3 cm dilated for the whole month of January and that those 10 days past her due date were really hard. She said she thinks she went to the hospital some time in the middle of the night, maybe 2am, and I was born at 11am. She said the hardest thing was managing the labor pains until she got the epidural and that she couldn’t wait for it to be over. She said that was the best part, when it was over... which is so my mom.  At the time nobody breastfed, she said it wasn’t popular to do so, so there was not even a conversation about that.

how was it to talk to your mom about how you were born?

My mom was like, “I can’t remember what I did 3 weeks ago!” She had a rough fertility journey after she had me and my brother was born via an emergency c-section, so it seems like my birth was smooth sailing, at least in comparison with her following births. I think she was more focused on motherhood than birth. She did say that my Dad had just found my baby book -where they recorded everything I did and at what age- and we were dying over it because we did everything so fast then. I swear it said I was fed cereal at 8 weeks and at 3 months I was eating steak! She then shared how funny it is to watch her daughters and daughter-in-laws raise their kids. My sister and sister-in-law are both major breastfeeders. I mean, I breastfed, but they are diehard, exclusive breastfeeders. I was not. I supplemented. And my mom, you can just tell, she was like there are boobs everywhere! It’s not the norm for her at all; she still looks at it like it’s foreign.

Do you remember you mom’s struggle with fertility?

Yes. I remember one pregnancy that was pretty far along, and she had told us she was pregnant. She lost the baby at 4 months or so and I remember her explaining it to us. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t work and it all just washes away. So, I need to go to the Dr. and have them clean me out.”  She was very upset about it, but we (my sister and I) weren’t really.

It’s funny actually, I had experienced something really similar to her. She had gone to the doctor and was told to come back 6 weeks later for a follow-up to make sure all was well, and when she returned she found out she was pregnant again. Turns out she had a vanishing twin, which I had also had with my son. When she was pregnant with my brother though, she waited until 20 weeks or so to tell us, even though  it was so obvious- my sister was all over it.  

LEt's talk about What you currently birthing?

Ricki and I are working on two documentaries, the first, Weed the People is about medicinal cannabis and is currently being edited so we will hopefully have a cut by fall.  We're also in the process of filming Sweetening the Pill a documentary about hormonal birth control.

How did you come to take on Sweetening the Pill?

Holly kept sending me her book and saying she thought it would be great for Ricki and I to be involved.  I never had a chance to read the manuscript, until finally the galley came out, which was a lot easier to read.  I read it on a flight to LA on my way to visit Ricki. After I landed I went straight to her house and was like: “You have to read this book. You have to read this book!”

While reading it I was able to put together all of this stuff from my life I never connected before… the 10 years I was on the pill and why I was put on it and the really hellacious process of about 6 months to a year of trying different pills and going to class, sobbing and thinking "I must be depressed" and “What’s wrong with me?” But luckily for me, it was just a year.  I’ve talked to women for who it ruined their entire 20s- their whole decade was ruined by side effects they never connected to their hormonal birth control.  That’s what really motivates me.  That moment of connecting those headaches, lack of sex drive… It felt like a similar feeling to the first time you read Spiritual Midwifery. It’s like, “Whattt, whaatt?!” So it really just felt like the space we needed to be in and where we needed to go and then it all came together really fast.

What has the labor been like?

It’s a tough movie to make. There’s a lot of issues around it, different from The Business of Being Born and the other movies we've made because in the childbirth conversation you have such a spectrum of options and they are all legal and you can find a happy medium. But with this it is very difficult because there are so few alternatives and the few that exist are little known, understood or practiced. And it’s dangerous because we definitely don’t want to make a movie that just makes everyone nervous about taking birth control. There are so few other options, it’s like, “Okay, great. Now what the hell do we do?” And FAM doesn’t work for everyone.

BB: It certainly requires education most people don’t have access to.

A: Right. And all these alternative methods are still not accepted, and you know, there is the copper IUD but it’s still not for everyone so it is really hard to talk about this.

BB: You are very brave for tackling it.

A: Brave or stupid ;) It’s a very tricky film to make. Some people won't agree to be on camera. And then some people just can’t wrap their brains around it. I mean even some women in Hollywood -we’d be sitting across from them talking about the film and I could tell they were not getting it and not on board with what we were saying. They were like, “Well, we just made a documentary about population control and all these places in Africa where they have 20 babies and no access to birth control so how can you make a movie about such an upper class problem of birth control being unhealthy?” And we haven’t even started talking about the billion dollar pharmaceutical companies that are behind this. There's them and there's also population control groups that have huge agendas and are quite serious about their tools: these shots and patches and pills... So you’ve got all that and we are just trying to carve out this little space to talk about health and safety and it just gets smeared over with these agendas.

WHAT's giving you the THE "FINAL PUSH" to keep going?

We had to do our own fundraising because so many networks have pharmaceutical advertisers and they won’t take us on.  But we got such amazing support from our Kickstarter.  We had all these giants in natural women's health like Sara Gottfried and Christiane Northrup coming to us! It was very inspiring.  And then we got a big grant from the Erika Langhart Foundation, which was started for a girl who died from the NuvaRing when she was 24 years old.


is this labor anything like the labor of childbirth?

Absolutely.  I mean nothing will ever compare, but I think in labor there’s that feeling of like, "Okay. How am I going to do this? For how many more hours? How am I going to sustain this?" And making these movies we have to draw on so many different resources, so many different ways to keep it going, to overcome that obstacle, raise that money, deal with that person, whatever it is… It’s things that happen along the way.  They are profoundly intense. And I think you have to sort of have this blind trust that it is all going to come together. Because when I was making the Business of Being Born I would literally sit there and think, “Who is going to give a shit about this movie? It’s so boring. I’m making this obscure movie about midwives and this is never going to work…” And I, I don’t know, underneath I must have had some underlying faith or larger than myself force and I think that is very much the same to labor. You connect to this larger entity of all the women in the world, all the people in the world. You are part of something bigger and it’s all going to be okay in the end. And I think also in labor I remember specific moments when I was just so angry about it because I was just stuck in this pain and no one could take it away and no one could tell me how much longer and everyone was annoying me and saying the wrong thing. And then I just hit this threshold when I was like, “Am I going to be a fucking brat about this? Bone up and make this happen.” And really, I remember my partner at the time saying “I didn’t think you can do it… I felt so bad for you I thought we were just going to end up in the OR after all this” and so I surprised him and I think it’s that beautiful feeling that I surprised myself but it was this real deciding moment of “Stop being this whiny little girl” It’s similar to these movies too. I can sit and complain about the lack of funding and the lack of this and that, but at the end of the day I know I am serving something bigger so I push through. We have to get this kid out. It’s not about us in the end.

BB: Well, we can't wait to see the movie! 

Any favorite  #brilliantbits?

Your body picks a mate through pheromones. So, a woman who is not on hormonal birth control will (and there is scientific evidence to back this up) find a mate that is much more genetically diverse from her so that their offspring would have a better chance of survival.  But a woman on hormonal birth control will be attracted to partners that are more genetically similar.  


Debra Pascali Bonaro

Debra Pascali Bonaro

Jesse Israel

Jesse Israel