One Artist Has ‘Solved’ The Problem Of Paying To Give Birth If UK Health Services Become Privatised

Though you may find yourself laughing out loud as you watch a frantic, unprepared, husband prepare to deliver his wife’s baby at home – guided by a monotone, ironic narrator – Anne Vaandrager’s project, Independent Labour, is actually a rather sinister critique on the future of healthcare.

The short film and accompanying silicon Birthing Box, complete with post-birth vaginal stitching kit, is Material Futures student, Anne’s, response to the impending privitisation of the NHS. “I had been reading a lot of articles in newspapers and online about how the UK government is slowly privatising the NHS and I felt I had to respond”, she told us, when we caught up with her after her final year show at Central Saint Martins.

As the ‘instructional’ video, accompanying, the Independent Birth Box On the floor of a rather lackluster living room, the miracle of birth is taking place and yet there is a distinct absence of midwives, doctors and a sterile environment. However, this is the future Anne imagines, though somewhat ironically, for childbirth when people become unable to afford private hospital fees.

Though Anne doesn’t intend to market her project as a real solution, she does implore people to question the future of healthcare, “the video is tongue in cheek but I do want people to make up their own minds, have their own questions and voice these.”

We spoke to the newly-graduated designer about healthcare concerns and how art and design can influence the future of society.

The Plus: How did you come up with the idea for the project?
Anne Vaandrager:
I had been reading article online about how the UK government is slowly privatising the NHS, how privatised companies were taking over contracts to run NHS services and junior doctors were demonstrating for there rights. I had to respond on this!
To address this big political and social issue I wanted to focus on a topic within healthcare that everybody could relate to: childbirth. Childbirth is a continuous cycle and a natural process. My project answers the question, how will privatization of the NHS affect childbirth?, in an ironic, comedic and cynical way. I wondered what would happen if you were pregnant and couldn’t afford privatized healthcare and had no other alternative than to give birth completely independently at home. INDEPENDENT LABOUR was born!

TP: How did you create the individual pieces for the box?
For the Birth Box I created the silicon objects myself. First I made a clay model for each object, cast the clay objects in plaster, then I poured silicon in the plaster molds. The objects I created are a vagina, afterbirth with umbilical cord and dilation toolset.

The silicon vagina is to teach the birthing partner how to stich up a woman’s vagina after birth. The afterbirth with umbilical cord is to teach the birthing partner where to cut the cord. The dilation toolset are 4 objects that each stand for the 4 different stage of dilation; latent phase 0-3 cm, active phase 4-7 cm, transition 8-9 cm, complete 10 cm, the woman is fully dilated and ready to give birth. Normally a midwife uses her fingers to measure the dilation. People who use the Birth Box have no or little experience with birth, by touching the objects they can get a feel for each stage.

The Birth Box also includes real medical instruments like umbilical cord scissors, episiotomy scissor, amniotic hook, needle holders and a suture set. All instruments and objects are in a polystyrene box. The polystyrene box can function as a commode for the baby.

TP: How did you gather information for, and research, the project?
I read a lot of articles about the UK healthcare system, as well as healthcare systems around the world. I spoke to a few women who gave birth, including my mum who gave birth three times at home.

I also spoke to a midwife to talk about my Birth Box and the first thing she told me is that my Birth Box would be illegal! Apparently it’s illegal in the UK when someone who is not registered as a midwife or GP to assist a woman during labour, he/she will be prosecuted. The only exception is an emergency.

I responded to this in my project by creating a home birth certificate that clarifies that it’s legal for the birthing partner to assist the woman in labour, because of privatisation of the NHS it’s an act of emergency.

TP: Talk us through your final show presentation – why did you set it out as you did?
For the exhibition I created a scene that shows that the Birth Box has been used for an ‘independent’ home birth. I decorated my exhibition space with ‘homely’ elements like a carpet and a houseplant, but on top of this homely and soft décor something sinister has happened – the blood on the carpet and the used instruments. I chose to create this set design to communicate my project in a very straightforward way.

TP: How do you think art can influence the future of society?
Art and design can function in society as a catalyst. It can create alternatives and should highlight the weakness of an existing system. I think we should not take things for granted and should be sceptical about current situations and always questions the future of our society. Art and design are a medium with which to stimulate debate around political and social topics.

TP: Sum up the independent birth box in three words.
Critical, ironical, cynical.

TP: What lead you to want to study Material Futures?
I wanted to develop myself as a designer.  This course gave me the chance to explore a broad range in design from material to science to social awareness. I wanted to be challenged in my design thinking. It’s an intense, diverse and exciting course.

TP: This was your final university project – what do you hope to do after you graduate?
I will stay for at least another year in London. The dream is to start my own studio and bring more critical, cynical and ironic design projects into the world! I also might want to do a design residency and meet new people who would like to work with me!