Christy Turlington Burns Q&A: Ending Preventable Maternal Deaths
Christy Turlington Burns is a mother, advocate, social entrepreneur, and founder & CEO of the maternal health organization, Every Mother Counts. Having endured a childbirth complication herself, Christy was compelled to direct and produce the documentary, No Woman, No Cry about maternal health challenges that impact the lives of millions of girls and women around the world. Every Mother Counts was launched in 2010 to heighten awareness about our global maternal health crisis.
In spite of substantial advances in maternal and newborn health over recent decades, roughly 300,000 girls and women still die due to pregnancy-related complications every year. At present, there is widespread agreement within the global community on what needs to be done to prevent these deaths and improve the health and wellbeing of women and babies. To shed light on the issue, Women Deliver President/CEO Katja Iversen interviewed Christy Turlington Burns, Founder and CEO of Every Mother Counts, a passionate advocate for the health and wellness of mothers everywhere.
Katja: Between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality rate has fallen by 44%, from approximately 546,000 to 303,000 deaths per annum. Yet despite these gains, some 830 women and girls still die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every single day. What can the global community to do continue to fuel action to end preventable maternal health once and for all?
Christy: When we started production on No Woman, No Cry in 2008, the global estimates for maternal deaths was over half a million women and girls dying each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. Today the estimate is 303,000 so the numbers are going in the right direction in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, some countries are falling behind and the United States is one of them. The US is currently ranked 46th in the world and is one of just 13 countries with a steadily rising maternal mortality rate. It is important that the momentum and progress made does not revert because it took a long time to get this far. I worry about the policies being implemented by this administration regarding women’s health which will limit access for women and the dangerous implications they will have on families around the world.
Katja: In low-income countries, only 51% of women have a skilled healthcare provider present during their childbirth. Yet we know skilled attendance at all births is considered to be the single most critical intervention for ensuring safe motherhood. Why aren’t women getting the care they need? What are the reasons behind this statistic and how does Every Mother Counts tackle them?
Christy: Every Mother Counts has been investing in grantee partners and programs that focus on improving access to timely and appropriate maternity care since 2012 when we became a 501 c3. We are focused on addressing three barriers to care: transportation, education & training and lack of adequate supplies. To address the health care worker shortage and ensure that women have skilled healthcare workers assisting their deliveries we have been supporting the training of a range of skilled providers in the US, Haiti, Guatemala, Syria and Tanzania. This includes, doulas, traditional birth attendants, midwives and nurses. It is important to consider the practical constraints and cultural preferences or norms of women in all communities and settings. Appropriate and respectful care is really critical in our approach to reducing maternal mortality. We must make every effort to meet women where they are and trust them to do what is right for them, provided they have options and access to services.
Katja: For those of us in the global development space, we rarely think of the U.S. as a nation requiring intervention. However, the U.S. ranks only 46th (Latest WHO ranking) in the world for maternal health, and maternal mortality and morbidity is even worse for women of color. Now that Every Mother Counts has expanded its advocacy and grant-making to the U.S., what are the priorities you focus on?
Christy: The US ranking is always the most shocking to most every audience I speak to or meet with. There is a widespread misconception that in the United States there is a safety net in healthcare, but many people fall through the cracks, including pregnant women. One in five women of reproductive age is uninsured in this country. We also have political, racial and systemic barriers that leave women of color and low-income women with lower quality care — or no prenatal care at all. Despite the high cost of healthcare for those who do have access, the quality of that care is inconsistent, and women are paying the price. Our US grants have provided low-income women with childbirth education, prenatal checkups, and doula services. As we continue to expand in the United States, we will continue to learn from our grantee partners what is most needed and then supports the needs of their communities through them.
"One in five women of reproductive age is uninsured in this country (The U.S.).
Political, racial and systemic barriers leave women of color and low-income women with lower quality care — or no prenatal care at all."
Katja: The atrocity of preventable maternal death has finally gained the public attention it deserves. But now we have general public that is energized and activated but unsure of how they can possibly make a difference. What can everyday citizen do to help save the lives of women, especially with Mother’s Day right around the corner?
Christy: We have found that the more people know about this issue, the more they want to be helpful. Every Mother Counts was essentially formed to offer individuals ways to engage. We educate the public and then provide options throughout the year to support maternal health and amplify our mission to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for every mother, everywhere. We have a running program which raises both awareness and funds for our mission. Running also highlights distance as a barrier to essential maternity care. We have had thousands run on behalf of Every Mother Counts all over the world and a race calendar is available on everymothercounts.org for those interested in participating. We also collaborate with companies who created products that benefit Every Mother Counts programs. Our Orange Rose Mother’s Day collection is available at www.everymothercounts.org which features 20 curated products that make great gifts and benefit others at the same time. We also produce a lot of film content to educate and inspire the public about challenges and solutions to emphasize all that is possible to end preventable maternal deaths.