Christy Turlington Burns Fights For Better Maternal Care

The United States has one of the costliest maternity-care systems in the world. How costly? The average U.S. pregnancy and birth ranges from $30,000 for a vaginal delivery to around $50,000 for a C-section.

These rates might be easier to accept if they merited superior outcomes. But as it stands, in addition to having one of the most expensive birth systems in the world, the U.S. also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates amongst industrialized nations — and that rate continues to grow. In fact, two women die everyday in the U.S. from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.

How is it that we spend the most on pregnancy and birth, and yet women and infants continue to die at such high rates during childbirth?

There’s no other way around it: the current birth system in this country is broken. A healthy, functioning system does not result in a city like Detroit, Michigan having maternal death rates that are three times the national average, exceeding the mortality rates of entire countries, like Uruguay, Libya, and Vietnam. A healthy system also doesn’t support the systemic imbalances in care we so frequently see in the U.S.; in Detroit, as well as in the rest of the nation, those most impacted by these statistics are women of color, low-income women, and immigrant women, who are dying at higher rates than white women during pregnancy and childbirth.

In order to get a better look at what is happening across the country when it comes to pregnancy and birth — and to see what various organizations and people are doing to improve maternal health — Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit dedicated to making childbirth safe for every mother and child, recently produced the documentary series Giving Birth in America. The series follows four pregnant women and their health-care providers in Florida, Montana, and New York, and looks at how patients and providers navigate various challenges involving racial inequality, poverty, chronic illness, and over-reliance on unnecessary medical interventions. It will be airing this month on CNN.

Avital Norman Nathman: Why have you decided to focus this series on domestic issues, when EMC is known for their global maternal health outreach?

Christy Turlington Burns: Since day one, we have always included the United States as part of our advocacy efforts. The U.S. is one of 13 countries with a rising maternal mortality rate, and most of these deaths are preventable. In 2003, when I became a mom, the U.S. was ranked 41st in the world, and today we are ranked 60th. We haven’t figured out how to make quality maternal health care accessible to every mother, or how to make the quality of care more consistent before, during, and after we deliver our babies. We need to make that a priority. Now seemed like the right time to heighten awareness of this issue, before we fall even further behind.

It is also important to note that Every Mother Counts has supported two programs in the U.S. — Ancient Song Doula Services in New York, which provides comprehensive doula care, nutrition classes, and doula training to low-income, at-risk women of color; and Commonsense Childbirth in central Florida, which provides prenatal care and childbirth education to low-income, at risk mothers.

Avital: What was the thought process behind choosing Florida, Montana, and New York to focus on?

Christy: While the leading causes of maternal deaths are generally the same all over the world (postpartum hemorrhage, infection, hypertensive disorders), the U.S. population is generally more diverse, and each state handles and defines maternal deaths differently. I live in New York and had my two children here, so I am concerned about my state’s current ranking as 47th out of 50 (from best to worst). EMC has supported Ancient Song Doula Services to address some of the barriers women are facing here in New York. The NY film highlights the important role that doulas can play; they’ve been proven to have a positive impact in birth incomes.

We chose Florida to highlight the incredible work of Jennie Joseph and Commonsense Childbirth, who we have been supporting since 2013. Jennie was also featured in my first film, NO WOMAN, NO CRY.

We chose Montana because we were looking to profile a large, yet less populated state with a shortage of health workers. Fifty-three of Montana’s 55 counties are medically underserved. Montana has only 99 Ob/Gyns in the entire state and a population of 407,257. Thirty-five of Montana’s 56 counties do not have any Ob/Gyns. When audiences see this film, they will get a good sense of what it is like living far from care in other places where we are supporting programs, such as Tanzania.

Avital: One thing that stands out in the series is that a lot of the issues revolve around lack of access. Many people like to talk about midwifery care as a trend, but for many of these women, it could be a matter of life or death when it comes to their births. How can we make quality, patient-centered care more accessible?

Christy: Midwives and doulas are the solution to many of the barriers women face. Not only is this care patient-centered, it’s affordable. Our hope is that these films will educate the public on how these are safe and quality-care options. High-risk pregnancies may require physicians, but low-risk pregnancies generally do not. We think every mother should have access to a range of options and that together with education, she will demand and receive the care that’s right for her.

Check out the campaign we are currently promoting, penned by one of our grantees, Jennie Joseph. She is calling on insurance companies and state Medicaid programs to fully reimburse for midwifery and doula care in all 50 states, and provide resources for policyholders to educate women and families on their health-care options.

Avital: If you could impress upon the public one main thing about the state of maternal health care in our country today, what would it be?

Christy: Most American women have choices that many other women around the world don’t have. It’s important to exercise our rights when we have them. Choose who you want in the room with you when you give birth. Seek out information. Educate yourself. Don’t play a passive role at this critical time in your life. Set an example to others of what is possible. Giving birth should be an empowering and transformative experience. Every mother deserves that chance.

Avital: How can people help?

Christy: Share your stories. Share your experiences and wisdom with your friends and with us. Where did you give birth? How was the care you received? What would you do differently if you could do it again for the first time? What information was most helpful to you during pregnancy, childbirth, after delivery?

Avital: What’s next for EMC?

Christy: We hope to continue to add to this film series and to campaign to make every mother count, everywhere.

Giving Birth in America is available at


Lead image: Flickr/Fortune Live Media