Why We Need to Pay Attention to the Maternal Mortality Crisis, Says Christy Turlington Burns
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The United States ranks 46th in the world for maternal mortality. In 2018, more than 300,000 mothers worldwide died due to complications related to child birth—and many of those deaths are preventable, says Christy Turlington Burns, former model, and founder of the nonprofit Every Mother Counts. “That got me really activated,” she said at WELL Summit Brooklyn on Oct. 5, 2018. “This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening in the United States.”
Christy’s personal experience with a postpartum hemorrhage that became life-threatening raised her awareness for the issue. “I came into motherhood with lots of options for where I’d give birth and my providers. I was prepped in the best way possible—until the unexpected happened,” she said. That made her wonder what it was like for women who didn’t have as many or any choice at all when it came to the birthing process.
“Actually giving birth allowed me to engage in the conversation differently,” Christy said. “If I hadn’t experienced it, I might not have known about it.” But, once she was aware, she couldn’t sit back and do nothing. “It was a critical piece for me,” she said, “starting Every Mother Counts, and getting other people engaged in this issue.”
A Larger Healthcare Issue
The United States is one of the only developed countries where maternal mortality rates aren’t decreasing, said Christy. We fell from 41st to 46th in the world from 2015 to 2018, and most complications and deaths are preventable. But, Christy said, we don’t like prevention in the United States. “We like treatment,” she said. “Our healthcare system isn’t set up to support pregnant women pre and postpartum to help prevent some of these complications. You can only recognize issues if you’re getting proper, ongoing treatment.”
Preventative healthcare is essential to decreasing maternal mortality statistics, she continued. “In the United States, chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity play a role in a mother’s birthing complications. But women are just part of the system and often aren’t listened to when they speak about their own bodies.”
Christy mentioned Serena Williams, the well-known tennis star, who experience complications after giving birth in September 2017. Serena felt short of breath the day after her C-section, and because she has a history of blood clots, worried that she was having a pulmonary embolism (a life-threatening condition in which a blood clot travels to the lungs). So she asked for a CT scan with contrast and heparin, a blood thinner, in an IV. She was right: The scan revealed that a few small blood clots had found their way into her lungs.
But, she struggled to get the treatment she needed, and her story has helped shed light on the disproportionate number of women of color who die during or after giving birth. “More and more stories from mothers are coming out, from highly educated women of color, to white women in suburban areas, and more people are learning about the crisis we’re facing,” said Christy. “It’s revealing that we need systemic change.”
The Common Denominator—And What We Can Do About It
The common denominator, said Christy, when you look at Serena’s story and the stories of women across the United States, is that women aren’t being listened to. “When you seek care, it’s about partnership and relationship, not handing over your power to your provider,” she said.
That’s part of the reason Every Mother Counts partners with Ancient Song Doula Services, a Brooklyn-based training program and doula certifying organization. “Since 2015, less than five percent of births in the United States have had doulas,” said Christy. “And yet, it’s been proven that having a doula as part of your medical team reduces the risk of complications pre and post birth, including postpartum depression.”
Increasing doula services across the country starts at the local level, Christy continued. “Often, you have to really advocate for having a doula in the room with you—but hospitals can’t say no. The doula is like part of your family and you have a right to request they be with you.” Hospital staff doesn’t always know how to work with a doula, but individuals can insist their doula partner with the medical team as an advocate for the mother, said Christy.
The policy and advocacy director at Every Mother Counts is working with the NY state government to help shape policy, and Christy says she’s hopeful that they’ll make progress in New York. Anyone can start that activation in their state, she continued, as the more we stand up and request the help mothers need, the more likely lawmakers are to listen.
One important piece that Christy urged people to consider advocating for is consistent reporting. “We don’t even always know the full extent of the issue because states aren’t required to report in the same way about maternal mortality and postpartum complications. We can ask locally for consistent state statistics so the we can understand what is happening where, when and why.”
Other Ways You Can Impact Maternal Mortality Right Now
- Sign up for Every Mother Counts’ newsletter. That will get you the most relevant and up-to-date statistics and information about when the organization’s next installment of its “Giving Birth in America” documentary film series.
- Share these statistics with friends and family. The more awareness there is for the issue of maternal mortality, the more likely we are to solve it.
- Support the doula system. “Ask, ask, ask,” said Christy. “We can create the demand for doulas.” Whether you’re giving birth or you know a friend who’s pregnant, consider adding a doula to your birthing team. Doulas create a support system and advocate for mothers, and can help reduce the rate of maternal mortality.
“We need to ensure that women get the healthcare access they need,” said Christy. “When you improve maternal health, you improve a woman’s overall health and decrease the likelihood of maternal pregnancy complications.”
The new “Giving Birth in America” documentary will debut on CNN.com on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
Interested in learning more about what doulas can do? Read about the Mama Glow Doula Training Program, and how it can help expecting mothers.