In the first minute of her 2010 documentary, No Woman, No Cry, model Christy Turlington Burns looks blissful, cradling her new baby daughter, Grace, in a white blanket at the St. Luke’s birthing center in New York. But within a minute, the midwife called for backup, and Turlington Burns began to hemorrhage. Then, there is an image of Turlington Burns’ bloody naked leg propped up on the shoulder of the midwife, as the obstetrician-midwife team manually extract the placenta—a process so painful, Turlington Burns said in an interview yesterday, that childbirth doesn’t begin to rival it. She said that in that moment, she felt that she “suddenly went from very proactive and powerful” to helpless.
The team managed to control the bleeding, and luckily Turlington Burns didn’t need a transfusion. But two years later, in 2005, she had a realization, a “visceral experience,” she said. She went with CARE to El Salvador, where her mother is from. She was pregnant with her son, Finn, and visiting other pregnant women in a rural town. It occurred to her: there was no clean water, no electricity, and no paved roads. If she’d gone through the same emergency there, “It would have been game over,” she said.
That striking realization played a large part in deciding to make the documentary—which took her to Tanzania, Guatemala, Bangladesh, and the United States. And in 2010, she founded Every Mother Counts (EMC), a campaign to end preventable deaths caused by pregnancy and childbirth around the globe that seeks to inform, engage, and mobilize new audiences to take action to improve the health and wellbeing of girls and women worldwide.
Yesterday’s Mom+Social event, sponsored by the United Nations Foundation, 92Y, Johnson and Johnson, BabyCenter and The Huffington Post, was the culmination of the Global Mom Relay, a 60-day online conversation between moms and experts from all 50 states and 141 countries. The relay, which garnered more than 90,000 actions and more than $450,000 to help women and children worldwide,was designed to harness the power of social media, technology, and philanthropy to advance the goal of the United Nations' Every Woman Every Child movement, which was established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010, with a mission to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015. The key ideas generated by yesterday’s summit will be presented in September, during UN Week. More than 400 people attended yesterday's event, with over 4,000 people tuning in via Livestream.
There were various panels throughout the day. When Cheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky, was asked what her mother taught her, she responded, “Education, education, education.” Jennifer Lopez, joined by sister Lynda Lopez, said, “Women are so powerful when we get together. There is something very special about your girls.” Turlington Burns’ mom was there, and got a nice “thank you, mom,” and a wave from her daughter on the stage, which invited an applause from the touched audience.
All of the speakers had different experiences with motherhood, but all agreed on one thing: there was still work to be done.
The maternal mortality ratio in developing countries is 240 per 100,000 births versus 16 per 100,000 in developed countries. These are unacceptable numbers to Turlington Burns, who set out to Tanzania on her first stop in producing No Woman, No Cry. There are several chilling scenes throughout the film: the Tanzanian nurses sweetly telling the young girls not to cry, that it will be alright; one obstetrician male saying he was the only doctor for 2.5 million people in the region.
What Turlington Burns had suffered from with her firstborn Grace was post partum hemorrhage, the leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the world, including in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and 90 percent of these deaths are preventable.
“Preventable.” In a private room, away from the cameras and coordinators, Turlington Burns says that word with emphasis. Clearly, it gets to her. Behind her soft voice and elegant demeanor (and annoyingly perfect bone structure), there is the fierceness of a tireless advocate.
What’s most surprising is that while in the past 20 years, maternal mortality worldwide halved, in the U.S., it doubled. How, why, is the world’s richest country ranked behind 49 others in maternal health? Why do two women die each day in the U.S. from pregnancy-related complications?
It’s not an easy answer. There are changing immigration trends, poor access to good health care, and higher obesity and diabetes rates that dramatically increase risk. There is some speculation that fertility treatments, which up the odds of high-risk pregnancy, and the increase in C-sections could impact maternal mortality. Also, in the U.S., we’re better at measuring and tracking data. Numbers from developing countries must always be questioned, as it’s nearly impossible to keep track.
Turlington Burns states in her film, which was made before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, that one in five women in the U.S. of reproductive age have no health insurance and that some insurance companies treated pregnancy as a pre-existing condition. (Now, they are no longer allowed to do so.) “Women were falling through the cracks,” she said.
About midway through the documentary, Turlington Burns says, “There’s a great irony here. While women in some of the poorest countries have trouble getting the care they need, if they can reach it, it may be free. Here in the U.S., where providers and services are abundant, healthcare is anything but free.”
So, today, for the first time, EMC is announcing its first U.S. grant to The Birth Place Midwifery Clinic, led by Jennie Joseph. The grant will support life-saving measures for low-income women in Central Florida, with a grant of $45,000 providing prenatal care visits for pregnant women and a grant of $18,000 covering the cost of prenatal education classes.
Turlington Burns, who is currently enrolled in a Master’s program in public health at Columbia, spoke excitedly of the new venture, but always with a seriousness about her. “It’s not something we just do,” she said. “We come into it with information, mindfully, and combine it with action.”
She did, however, add, that on this Mother’s Day, she plans to sleep in.