Christy Turlington Burns is best known for being a supermodel, but she's got a lot more going on that just that. Turlington Burns is also the founder of Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization that works towards making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother. This year, she's joining powerhouses like Ava DuVernay and Soledad O'Brien as a speaker at BlogHer's #BlogHer15 conference, during which she will share a first-ever sneak preview of "Giving Birth in America," the first of a three-part short film series entitled Giving Birth in America. The series examines some of the reasons the United States is falling so far behind in maternal health care — because, as shocking as it seems, the U.S. is one of only eight countries where maternal mortality rates are actually increasing.
In addition to founding Every Mother Counts, Turlington Burns has also done advocacy work towards ending smoking and helped to launch the website SmokingisUgly.com. She is also a member of the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council, an advisor to the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Dean's Advisors and on the advisory Board of New York University's Nursing School. With these positions, Turlington Burns is clearly a woman with a mission who is willing to put in the hard work that's necessary in any form of social change work.
Bustle had the opportunity to speak with Turlington Burns via email about her new film series and her thoughts on issues impacting mothers around the world.
BUSTLE: Every Mother Counts’ new film "Giving Birth in America" examines some of the reasons the U.S. is so far behind other countries in maternal healthcare. From what you've learned producing this film, what's the biggest reason you think this is true?
CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: The biggest challenges American mothers face are associated with lack of access to affordable, skilled, and compassionate healthcare providers who are most appropriate for their health. They may not be able to afford the care or could live too far away from a midwife or doctor who can provide personalized, respectful prenatal care. Not enough mothers receive thorough postpartum care and too many receive a high-intervention style of antenatal care that’s contributing to a dangerously high c-section rate. We also have more mothers having babies at older ages, more obese mothers and more babies born via infertility treatments.
We have a nation of mothers who are uneducated about how their own health, healthcare, lifestyle and choices impact their maternal health outcomes.
Do you think the reason this issue has been living in the shadows is because of the sexism often found in medicine?
There’s certainly some truth to that. Today we have more women obstetricians than ever, and while that doesn’t exclude sexism, I think the issue has more to do with our for-profit, pay-for-service medical model. Women who can afford good insurance or are able to pay for the best medical services (and by “best,” I don’t necessarily mean “more”) are the ones who fare the best. Those who can’t afford prenatal education or those who work in low-income jobs don’t get the same quality care or the flexibility and options as others do.
You have also founded the nonprofit Every Mother Counts to help make giving birth safe for all mothers. You've said that many people are shocked to find this is still an issue — so why do you think it's still an issue?
I think many of us are pretty uninformed about all of this until we are in it, and by then it may be too late. Preventative healthcare is still not as mainstream as it should be. There is a false assumption that anyone can and should be able to become pregnant, but preconception health has an impact on a woman’s health and her future family’s as well. I also think the way we pay for healthcare in America is largely to blame in conjunction with the influence of insurance providers and malpractice insurers. Insurance companies and hospital systems control prices, determine which services are covered, and which interventions a doctor must do to protect him or her self from malpractice. These services and interventions may be priced out of an individual patient’s reach and they may or may not represent evidence-based practice. The price of obstetric malpractice insurance and the risk for lawsuit are so high in America, many doctors are being driven out of the industry. This is not the case in any other developed countries. When you combine these factors, it means some women can’t get healthcare, others get a high-intervention model of care they don’t really need, and doctors are under pressure to practice defensive medicine. Combined, they result in maternal healthcare that’s not meeting many women’s needs.
How did you first become interested in maternal healthcare? Was it in becoming a mother yourself?
I’d worked with a large global humanitarian organization after becoming a mother and have been aware of how deep inequities are around the world from decades of travel. After enduring a complication following the delivery of my daughter, I started to learn the global estimates of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications and deaths. That was the moment I knew I had to get involved in maternal healthcare. All mothers deserve access to the right kind of healthcare to ensure their safety, health and wellbeing. All mother’s lives have equal value and all of us should have the opportunity to love and care for our children once they are born.
A study from the Urban Institute published last month found that Millennial women are having fewer children than any other generation before it. How do you think this fact is going to shift or affect maternal healthcare?
I think we’re seeing very gradual improvement in maternal healthcare for American women, but I think we have a long ways to go. It’s going to take a lot of cultural shifts to get where we need to be, and if fewer women are having babies, that may turn out to be a benefit. They may be more demanding consumers in the healthcare industry and that may translate into better quality care. We’ll have to wait and see.
We'd be interested to get your take on the importance of reproductive human rights in this conversation; do you believe that having access to maternal healthcare should be a human right?
Absolutely! Every human who has ever been alive on this planet owes his or her birth and life to a mother. Without mothers, society wouldn’t exist. If the protection of a mother’s safety, dignity and life through high quality, personalized and compassionate maternal health isn’t deserving of being a universal human right, then I don’t know what is. This is where all human rights begin – at the very beginning of every human life.
What do you hope people will take away from your new film?
Giving Birth in America focuses on the challenges women in the U.S. face when in need of prenatal healthcare. These challenges are both similar to those women all over the world face and unique to our own. Just like for mothers in other countries where maternal health outcomes are poor, American mothers face barriers in terms of lack of access to skilled, compassionate healthcare providers and facilities and inability to afford healthcare. They often lack the information they need to understand and make maternal healthcare decisions. Inability to access or afford medical insurance, culturally appropriate care and midwifery care also places American women at high risk.
Healthcare providers face unique challenges that impact maternal healthcare in the U.S. too because of the heavy caseloads required by insurance providers, and the responsibilities they face in terms of malpractice insurance and strict practice guidelines. These may pressure some providers to do more interventions than are necessary or beneficial for their patients.
The films explore issues like race, poverty, over and under-use of medical interventions and other inequities that impact maternal healthcare. It focuses on a variety of individual women and providers in Montana, Florida, and New York as they navigate these challenges to give birth safely. Together they highlight some solutions such as, expanded use of midwifery care, doula services and prenatal education, which are proven to improve outcomes.
If you want to see the sneak preview of "Every Mother Counts" and see Burns speak, #BlogHer15 will take place July 16-18 in New York — and yes, there is still time to register!
Images: ChristyTurlingtonBurns/Instagram (3); Getty Images (2)