In 1962, after one miscarriage, Florence Helfand, a suburban Long Island mother of two young sons, became pregnant. To help her carry this baby to term, her doctor prescribed a popular anti-miscarriage drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES). All Florence wanted was a healthy baby girl, and she had every reason to believe that DES was the best pre-natal care money could buy. Instead, DES compromised her only daughter Judith’s future and threatened their relationship in ways she could never have imagined.
At 25, Judith Helfand was diagnosed with DES-related cervical cancer. Battling personal grief, corporate power, and her mother’s guilt, she turns the camera on herself and her family as she explores the drug’s tragic legacy in what called “a devastatingly sad, funny and allembracing work.”
From 1947 to 1971, doctors prescribed DES, a synthetic estrogen, to millions of pregnant women to prevent miscarriage. Some early scientific studies questioned the drug’s usefulness, finding it to be carcinogenic to laboratory animals and ineffective in preventing miscarriage, and by 1970 doctors had identified a rare form of vaginal cancer in some young women exposed in utero to DES.
The Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory against its use during pregnancy in 1971, but for millions of DES sons and daughters, the damage was done — with health effects including malformed reproductive organs, infertility and cancer.
After being screened regularly during her teens and early 20’s, Helfand had thought her worries were over by 1990. After the age of 25, she had been assured her chances of developing DES-related cancer were minimal. That same year, Helfand volunteered to help make a film about the drug. The filmmakers insisted that all DES-exposed crew members get an updated DES screening, so Helfand went for what she thought would be a routine check-up. Instead, she was diagnosed with potentially lethal DES-related clear-cell cancer of the cervix. “I thought I was safe, but you never outgrow your exposure,” the filmmaker recalls. “I was furious, angry, depressed, hurt, and completely overwhelmed. I could not wrap my brain around what was happening to me.”
Two weeks later Helfand had an emergency radical hysterectomy. She went home to recuperate at her parents’ home in suburban Merrick, Long Island, and the healing process began. Refusing to confine the tears, rage, laughter and hope to family dinner table conversations, Helfand decided to address the issues head-on by making her own film — a spirited and stunningly intimate video diary.
A Healthy Baby Girl follows the filmmaker over a five-year span, documenting tense moments, tender conversations and everything in between. Determined not to be silenced by her DES exposure, and aware that she had to “get on with life,” Helfand takes viewers from a bittersweet family conversation about shiva, the Jewish ritual for mourning, out to scenes of DES daughters lobbying in the halls of Congress, and back home to her baby nephew’s bris — a religious celebration of new life. “I think that the best thing about being human is that we have the capacity and the wherewithal to laugh in the face of tragedy,” the filmmaker says. “Every time we were able to laugh, it made me believe that our humanity was more powerful than DES exposure and we would find a way to deal with this.”
Intensely intimate and at the same time heartbreakingly universal, A Healthy Baby Girl eloquently addresses the ways in which Helfand’s DES exposure affected not only her own health but also the health of her relationships with the people around her and, ultimately, how toxic exposure affects all of us. “This is a story about what happened to me and my family and my mother and our relationship,” she says, “and what happened inside our house, in the kind of suburb that millions of people live in. The kind of place where everything looks okay — until it isn’t.”
“I made this film because what was happening to me and my mom and what was challenging and changing the course of my future is something we don’t only share with DES-exposed people. I want everyone who sees this film to remember that we are all vulnerable to toxic exposure, whether you get it in pill form or you live near a medical waste incinerator or are working with cancer-causing chemicals on the shop floor.
“I hope my personal experience can translate what often seems like an abstract and future threat into a concrete reality. Corporate decisions that are made for short-term gains are not about our long-term health. I just know that if we bring it back to the place and the relationships that we hold most sacred, we could put a human face on the statistics that make toxic exposure seem far away, and that we have a chance to change the course of our future.”