Lifetime's New Film is Vilifying Black Birth Workers—Here's Why That's Dangerous
Lifetime TV released a distasteful and harmful film depicting Black birth and Black midwives. The United States has an alarming rate of maternal mortality, which is exceptionally high for Black birthing people. This movie, released at the start of Black Maternal Mortality Week, is disconnected at best and downright violent at its worst. We need to do better to protect Black birth workers.
I am a doula, childbirth educator, lactation counselor, prenatal yoga teacher, mother, and biracial woman living in NYC. And I am deeply disturbed. I became aware of the Lifetime TV movie Beware of the Midwife and was appalled by the depiction of Black pregnancy and birth. The premise? A Black couple decides to have a home birth because the pregnant woman is fearful of giving birth in a hospital (a real fear for many) and decides to hire a home birth midwife. The midwife, a Black woman, then plots to steal the couple's newborn. Lifetime's storyline is reckless, racist, and harmful. It was too much to allow this to go by without speaking up. To further add to the distastefulness of this film, Lifetime chose to air it at the start of Black Maternal Health Week.
The goal of Black Maternal Health Week is to spotlight and bring awareness to the disparities Black birthing people face and highlight the importance of Black birth workers. In the United States, the maternal mortality rate is rising—about 700 women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions each year, and 60,000 more experience near misses. The U.S has the worst maternal mortality rate of the top 11 industrialized nations. For Black birthing people, the risk of death is three times that of their White counterparts, and in NYC where I live, the rate is 12 times higher. Rather than the risk improving over time as is the global trend, Black women in the U.S are dying at higher numbers.
There is a real crisis at hand. Many Black people fear giving birth because they may not survive it. This is not hyperbole. Every day, Black pregnant people enter a hospital never to leave. Kira Johnson, Sha-Asia Washington, Dr. Shalon Irving, Amber Rose Isaac, and countless others have lost their lives giving birth in recent years. Regardless of socioeconomic status, education level, access to care, health, immigration status, Black people face more risk when giving birth. Racism in the medical system is real. Textbooks still teach outdated, and frankly, racist concepts that Black people do not feel pain in the same way as White people. Students do not learn to recognize symptoms and warning signs that may appear differently on melanated skin tones. Pain medications are routinely denied or underutilized for Black patients. Even über celebrities, like Beyoncé and Serena Williams, have had to fight and advocate for themselves to be heard when experiencing maternal health crises. Despite her wealth, celebrity, and access to "the best" health care, Serena's major medical crisis after giving birth to her child was ignored until she forcefully advocated for further testing and care—preventing her own death.
However, instead of Lifetime TV choosing to take this week as an opportunity to share stories that empower Black people through pregnancy, birth, and delivery or honor Black birth workers who are fighting for equity in care, the network chose to produce a movie that villainizes a Black midwife.
Black midwives have historically been vilified and degraded to remove birth from their hands and deliver it over to white Obstetricians, for profit. There was a very successful smear campaign to end the practice of so-called "granny" midwives and home births. The goal? For white OBs to gain new patients and major dollars. Black midwives were stripped of their right to practice at a time when Black lay midwives attended the majority of births, making their affordable services illegal. The campaign deemed homebirth unsafe, uncivilized, and dirty, a stigma that still holds strong to this day and is further perpetuated by the media.
In actuality, home birth attended by a skilled and licensed midwife is inherently safe for low-risk birthing people. Making planned birth options like home birth and birthing centers more accessible and less stigmatized for all birthing people is an important part of creating a solution for the maternal mortality issue in this country.
Studies show that in a hospital setting, midwife-attended births have more favorable outcomes as well, leading to better outcomes for birthing people, their babies, and overall patient experience. Midwife attended births see fewer interventions, complications, cesarean births, postpartum mood disorders, and improved outcomes for both baby and birthing person. Lifetime TV showing the midwife character as a scheming, devious villain further feeds the deep-seated stigma that Black women, in particular Black care providers, are not to be trusted and inadequate.
Rather than support and uplift Black stories, Black characters, and Black voices, Lifetime TV has chosen the lowest form of "entertainment" by ticking a box on their diversity checklist and hiring Black actors to participate in this modern-day minstrel show. It should also be noted that the movie was written, produced, and directed by mostly white men (one producer out of four is a Black man). They have also chosen to blatantly ignore the comments from Black people and organizations on social media, calling out the problematic premise of this movie, the violent emotional damage, and furthering of a white supremacist agenda. As of this writing, all social media posts had been removed, yet Lifetime had yet to address the concerns brought forth.
Here's the thing, Lifetime TV, it's simple. Do better. Listen to Black people. Bring Black artists to the table to tell their stories. Uplift Black voices.
You can sign a petition to hold Lifetime TV accountable here, and learn more about supporting black birthing people and birth workers through the following organizations:
Parents.com investigated the nation's maternal health crisis and what can be done to lower the risk for thousands of expecting mothers. Read more from the 2020 report, American Birth Story, here.