Known for her iconic image, Christy Turlington Burns does more than model an ideal of physical beauty.
Following the birth of her first child, Burns suffered from an unexpected postpartum hemorrhage. Her safe recovery depended upon the wise response of an effectively outfitted medical team. But what of women who do not have access to such care? In 2010, Burns founded Every Mother Counts in order to make “pregnancy and birth safe for every mother.”
“We are sisters in motherhood,” states Burns. “When a child is born, a mother is also born.”
We have a long way to go in order to ensure a safe passageway into motherhood for the world’s women. Every two minutes a woman dies from complications in pregnancy or childbirth, every two minutes. This means 800 mothers die each day as they struggle to bring life into our world. Ninety percent of these deaths are preventable.
In this special Mother’s Day interview, Burns reflects upon motherhood, the goals of her organization, inspiration drawn from her yoga practice, and why every mother counts.
What qualities of heart and mind are most important for you to exemplify as you nurture your two children?
I believe we learn most from examples around us. I hope my actions and the way I choose to live my life teach my children what I value. I think it is vital that my children see as much of the world as possible, as that's how I learned most everything that matters. I trust that an expansive worldview will help them better understand their place in our world.
My children are fortunate to have two healthy, passionate people as their parents who love and respect one another as equals.
We turn our attention to mothers at this time of year and spend billions on sentimental gifts. Yet, 800 women die every day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Could you address this juxtaposition?
I am all for celebrating mothers but I do wish we could spread some of that love and generosity throughout the year and around the world. The sad truth is mothers are undervalued in most societies, including our own in many ways. Too many of us are taken for granted and that’s partly to blame for why so many women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. It's definitely why we haven't done a better job making policy makers know that we don't accept this.
I founded Every Mother Counts to raise awareness about a global tragedy that not enough people know about yet most of us are touched by. When people learn that every two minutes a mother dies from pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions, that are mostly preventable, they want to do something about it. We welcome their involvement.
Why should the status of mothers, especially in impoverished areas of the world, concern us?
Any woman who has needed a medical intervention in birth understands just how critical access to this care can be. I had access to such care after delivering my first child and then learned that hundreds of thousands of girls and women are dying each and every year bringing life into the world. This made me want to insure that more women could have a chance to safely become mothers.
I don't sleep well knowing some women's lives are considered more valuable than others and you don't need to look far to see the disparities. If we make the lives of mothers around the world a priority, we have the power to create great change.
On a practical level, describe the specific areas of focus within Every Mother Counts.
One hundred percent of what we raise through corporate partnerships and individuals goes directly to our portfolio of grants to address improving access to critical maternity care. Our three main areas of concentration are: transportation, education, and supplies. We are providing transportation to women in Uganda, training midwives in Haiti, providing HIV testing and screening in Indonesia, providing prenatal care to low income women in the US, and providing solar energy to clinics in Malawi.
Can you shed light on the issue of adolescent maternal mortality?
We know that one of the leading causes of death for girls ages 15-19 is pregnancy and childbirth. In the US, teen pregnancy is actually on the decline, but globally we’re still looking at countries where child marriage is acceptable and reproductive healthcare isn’t accessible. Obstructed labor is one of the leading causes of maternal death in Sub Saharan Africa and it's more common amongst younger women.
When girls don’t have access to education, don’t know how their bodies work, or how to take care of themselves during pregnancy, they are at risk. When they don’t have access to good nutrition or healthcare, their bodies aren’t capable of supporting healthy pregnancies and birth. We know that when a girl stays in school longer she also delays marriage and her first pregnancy. That alone can make a huge impact on birth outcomes.
What about maternity care in the US? What is your organization doing here?
Our own maternal health statistics aren’t good at all. While 99 percent of deaths that result from pregnancy and childbirth complications occur in the developing world, 800 women die every year right here in the US. That’s two or three every single day. That really stands as evidence that the maternal and reproductive health needs of American women aren’t a big enough priority. In fact, two reports that were released this week indicate just how poorly the US ranks. The Lancet reports that the US comes in 60th in the world in terms of maternal health outcomes. In 2003, we were 50th which means our outcomes are even worse than they were ten years ago. Save the Children ranks the US at 31 in their Annual Maternal Rankings Index, down from 29 last year.
We are also very concerned about exporting our healthcare mistakes to other countries. We’re seeing evidence in many parts of the world that some hospitals are following in our footsteps in terms of implementing too many unnecessary interventions. At the same time, many of these countries and hospitals are still facing extreme lack of access, staff, supplies, and skills. We need to address all of these issues while also keeping our eyes open for the mistakes that are so prevalent here at home.
Describe the energy that you bring to your work. How does this work bring meaning and purpose to your life?
I am energized when I am feeling purposeful. As a mother and an advocate I feel a sense of purpose daily. It helps of course that I’m healthy and able to exercise and take care of myself. I see what mothers in other countries and even many here in the US go through and I count my blessings.
What role does yoga practice play in helping you sustain your visionary work?
Yoga has been an essential part of my life for decades. While I don’t always get to practice asanas (yoga postures) as often as I’d like, I practice seva (service) every day. Yoga allows me to approach all aspects of my life with clarity and perspective. It unifies the different areas of my life from modeling to motherhood to my work with Every Mother Counts and more. I feel a great sense of connection and community with others because of this practice and from there I can work to become the best mother and best maternal health advocate I have the ability to be.
Finally, describe the Every 2 Minutes campaign.
Our Every 2 Minutes campaign highlights the reality that every two minutes a woman dies bringing life into the world. We hope to accomplish two things with this campaign: to educate people about a global tragedy that we know how to solve and inspire more people to join our efforts to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.
I sincerely hope that many of our readers will be inspired to join you in this worthy cause. I also congratulate you for recently being named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.
Thank you so much Christy.
The death of a new mother tears a hole in the most basic structure of our social fabric -- the attachment between mother and child. According to Suzanne Arms, author of “Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth in America,” during the period between conception and a child’s first year of life “the mother-baby unit is one biological system.” The tragic and untimely death of a new mother leaves orphaned infants, particularly in the developing world, at a significantly increased risk of also dying. Through the determined efforts of organizations like Every Mother Counts, women’s lives are not the only ones being saved.
Today, many of us will host a Mother’s Day brunch, pin a corsage, purchase flowers, or make a special phone call as we formally acknowledge and celebrate mothers. In this recognition, may we turn our attention to the hundreds of thousands of women worldwide struggling to secure a safe passageway into motherhood. May we work diligently to ensure that all mothers live through pregnancy and birth in order to nurture their children and share their gifts.
We are all born of women. We enter into this world of wonder, pain, joy, sorrow, darkness and light through the bodies of women. This simple fact unites humankind. There is nothing controversial about saving the lives of pregnant and birthing women. The work of Every Mother Counts clearly cuts across all sectarian and political lines. In her determined efforts, Burns models the beauty of a just and compassionate vision.
To participate in the Every 2 Minutes (#every2) campaign, Christy Turlington Burns suggests that you “take two minutes to take two actions” that include the following:
UPLOAD 2 photos of the day you were “born” a mother on the Every Mother Counts Facebook Contest page through Facebook or #every2 your photos on Twitter or Instagram
RUN 2 miles using the Charity Miles app.
SHARE 2 facts about maternal health on 2 of your social media networks using #every2.
GIVE 2 gifts by making 1 purchase from a partner organization that will generate a donation to Every Mother Counts.
INVITE 2 friends to Take 2 actions of their own.