A Healthy Baby Girl

Director: Judith Helfand
Screenwriters: Judith Helfand, Irena Klepfisz

Institute History

  • 1997 Sundance Film Festival


In 1971 the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of the synthetic hormone DES in this country. Since the 1940s, pharmaceutical companies had been marketing the drug to pregnant women to allegedly prevent miscarriage. However, in 1952 a conclusive study found that DES, in addition to being ineffective, was carcinogenic to the offspring. Yet for the next nineteen years, the drug was still prescribed to healthy pregnant women. What happened to the approximately nine million DES daughters? Directed by one of them, A Healthy Baby Girl is the unforgettable story of mother-daughter love, guilt, vulnerability, and confrontation in the face of exposure to this toxic drug. After Judith Helfand’s mother suffered a miscarriage, her doctor prescribed DES for her pregnancy with Judith. As a result of the DES, when Judith was twenty-five, she was diagnosed with a rare clear-cell cancer and had to have a radical hysterectomy. This uncompromising film documents her fight: with the cancer, with the company which manufactured the drug, and with Congress to allocate funds for DES research.

As the film reveals, the circumstances by which Judith discovered she had cancer are remarkable. She was participating in a documentary about DES daughters, which required her having a thorough exam through which the cancer was detected. When the film crew ran out of money, Judith decided to continue on her own using her cousin’s home-video camera. This penetrating documentary follows Judith from diagnosis to the five-year anniversary of her surgery. As strong as she is, there are emotional setbacks along the way, which she courageously refuses to hide from view. The film raises the issue of accountability by the pharmaceutical companies which marketed the drug after tests showed it was harmful. A Healthy Baby Girl's most striking irony lies in the fact that Judith’s mother is now taking thyroid medication only manufactured by the company that made her DES.

— Lisa Viola

Screening Details

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