The Chicago Maternity Center Story

The Chicago Maternity Center Story shows women's commitment to the facility and the idea of the facility -- an outpatient operation that's destined to be shut down as this 1976 film begins.

The Chicago Maternity Center Story

Director: Jerry Blumenthal, Suzanne Davenport, Sharon Karp, Gordon Quinn, Jennifer Rohrer
Cast: Scharene Miller
Rated: NR
Studio: Kartemquin Films
Year: 1976
US date: 2011-04-19 (Stranger Than Fiction)

"At home, you're treated like an individual and you're the most important thing there, you feel this." Describing her experience with the Chicago Maternity Center, this anonymous young mother echoes the stories told by others, including a woman who remembers that her other children watched the birth of their sibling. "They saw the baby come out," she smiles. "The doctors were really beautiful. And I'm one that believes in telling it like it is. They saw the baby being born. The stork didn’t bring the baby."

Like other testimonies in The Chicago Maternity Center Story, these attest to the women's commitment to the facility and the idea of the facility -- an outpatient operation that's destined to be shut down as this 1976 film begins. Screening 19 April as part of Stranger Than Fiction's spring season, followed by a Q&A with Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn, filmmaker Suzanne Davenport, and medical journalist Laura Newman, it structures this drama into two parts. The first follows the experience of Scharene Miller, one of the last mothers to benefit from the Maternity Center's home birthing services. The second situates the closing in a broader context, namely, the rise of the increasingly profitable medical industry -- the same industry that now, working with the insurance industry, makes it nearly impossible for poor people to receive "quality medical care."

This phrase is something of a mantra in The Chicago Maternity Center Story, and as you hear it again and again, over images of actual women who want such treatment, and then images of commercial products (everything from medical equipment and lighting designs to bedpans and cafeteria food). When Dr. Beatrice Tucker arrives at Scharene Miller's home on the South Side, her assistants and Scharene's friends set up a sterile environment on the dining room table. The 75-year-old doctor keeps her patient focused and as soothed as possible (even confirming the myth that the "newsprint" laid out beneath the mother is "they say, sterile"). When the baby's in the posterior position ("This happens in one out of three births," notes the narrator), Dr. Tucker performs an episiotomy and pulls out her forceps.

As startling as this scene appears now (and at the time, of course, forceps were a preferred technology), it's not nearly so scary as women's reports of hospital births, where they're are left alone during labor or doctors perform unnecessary surgeries. The narrator articulates what's at stake as corporate interests overtake even the semblance of caring for patients. The Maternity Center, supported by Northwestern University Hospital since the 1895, is for decades a charity project overseen by wives of wealthy industrialists. A film made during the early 1930s provides imagery as this film's narrator observes that then, "More women died from childbirth than from cancer." They were victims "of doctors' low regard for obstetrics and preventive medicine and became another statistic in the high maternal mortality rates across the country." As such low regard became the norm, the Maternity Center' patrons find other things to do with their time and the Board of Directors discovered the remarkable profits yielded by "health care."

The documentary shows the fight to maintain the Center even as it is set to be replaced by a new $18 million women's hospital, described by the narrator as "part of the Northwest Medical Empire on the Gold Coast and.... named after a major donor. It would provide care for the mostly white and wealthy near north neighborhoods who could afford high fees."

The film's argument against this empire is bolstered by its soundtrack choices, including famous guitar riffs from Ozzy Osbourne's "Iron Man" and Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" (this is especially well used, the aggressive rat-a-tat guitar sounding over pictures of Board members, their multiple profits-oriented affiliations typed over their fine suits). As it pits the local community against behemoth corporations, the film demonstrates both the effectiveness and inventiveness of independent documentary -- as a concept and a movement -- and also the need for support from elsewhere, including community activists and earnest politicians.

The STF screening marks the DVD release of The Chicago Maternity Center Story and also the 45th anniversary of Kartemquin Films, the remarkable company that has supported independent documentary projects including Hoop Dreams, Milking the Rhino, and this year's The Interrupters. Such films represent the spirit of the Maternity Center, invested in local communities, making visible their efforts to fight back against what seem overwhelming corporate forces.

"Just because a house call seems old fashioned," observes the narrator, "doesn’t mean it's not good medicine." As activists from WATCH (Women Act to Control Health Care) gather to confront the Board during the film's second half, it's plain that their battle is lost. And it's not a little distressing to see that the debates then remain the same, only with the costs more devastating. The documentary -- so energetic, so right -- provides heartening evidence of efforts by activists, filmmakers, and mothers to fight back.

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