Supermodel, filmmaker, and founder of Every Mother Counts, Chirsty Turlington Burns aims to make sure every mother receives the care and safety they deserve.
By Emma Childs
I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend who advocates for safe and respectful maternity care for women in the United States and around the world in my day-to-day role as founder and CEO of Every Mother Counts.
What do you do?
I do my best to be my best in each of these roles. And sometimes, though rare, I achieve all of this at once.
What is Every Mother Counts?
I founded Every Mother Counts in 2010 around the release of a documentary I directed and produced called No Woman, No Cry, which examines the barriers to maternity care around the world. I was inspired to make the film after experiencing a childbirth complication and learning that hundreds of thousands of women were dying every year because they do not have access to the care they need.
Every Mother Counts is a nonprofit organization with the mission to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere. We engage communities, thought leaders, and partners in efforts to achieve quality, respectful, and equitable maternity care for all.We also educate the public about maternal health and invest in community-led programs to improve access to essential maternity care.
In the United States, the number of women who die giving birth has nearly doubled over the last 25 years. Can you discuss this local maternal health crisis and the goals of Giving Birth in America,the recent documentary series from Every Mother Counts?
Photo by Heather Armstrong
When I became a mom in 2003, I was shocked to learn that the United States was ranked 41stin the world in terms of maternal mortality[JC1] . Today, we are ranked 46th. We are one of 13 industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality ratio.
We know that chronic health conditions and inconsistent access to quality maternity care are large contributors to the maternal health crisis here in America. We are also starting to hear stories of women who are not being listened to, oftentimes women of color, who are suffering and dying because of institutional racism, which is plaguing our health system. The national average of a black woman dying from a pregnancy or childbirth complication is three to four times greater than for a white woman, but in New York City, it’s as high as 12 times.
We are also not consistently reporting or monitoring the deaths and disabilities across all states—or hospitals—related to pregnancy and childbirth. With a standardized maternal mortality review process, we could better understand the scope of the problem to help us focus our attention and resources on solving it.
We have an ongoing short film series called Giving Birth in America,which aims to highlight the challenges and solutions in the United States. My hope is to raise awareness, educate the public, and amplify women’s voices. We are in production in California on the fifth installment now, which will be released this fall.
Every Mother Counts recently launched its annualOrange Rose Mother’s Day Campaign, which features collaborations with Ash + Ames, Luna Zorro, Farmgirl Flowers, Clare V. and Solly Baby. Can you describe the intentions of the campaign and the significance behind the name “Orange Rose”?
We had been looking for a symbol for our issue that others could also rally around for Mother’s Day, and we launched the Orange Rose in 2016. We felt that a rose was a perfect symbol that illustrated the vitality of a thriving mother who is cared for, respected, and valued. Our organization’s goal is to ensure that all mothers survive and thrive in this role. We have some amazing partners of women-led/mother-led companies who are really aligned with our mission and are helping us grow our reach through partnership.
This Mother’s Day, you can be part of the solution by making a donation in honor of a mom and supporting us at everymothercounts.org.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of? What’s the biggest hurdle you have overcome?
I had a clear vision of how I wanted to bring my children into the world. Being able to give birth to both of my children with a midwife by my side and a solid partner and team to support me were huge accomplishments. Every hurdle is a lesson. The hard ones are the easiest in some respects, because you can’t avoid them. I like those best. The complication I endured after delivering my daughter has opened a door for me and set me on this path. You could call it a hurdle, but I like to think of it as a gift.
Photo courtesy of Every Mother Counts.
With the current political climate in America, there are copious threats to women’s health care. What are possible ways to establish security for women’s health, and how will Every Mother Counts play a role in this journey?
There are a multitude of challenges that impact women’s lives in harmful ways—lack of access to care, insurance, options, to name just a few. We are focused on what is possible. We educate the public about not only the challenges but also the solutions, because there are so many. We are at a tipping point—increased media attention has generated greater recognition of the maternal health crisis in the U.S. than ever before. But for things to change, we need to do more than create awareness. We are lending our support to a few pieces of legislation:
The Maternal Health Accountability Act, S. 1112, also called the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, H.R. 1318 in the House of Representatives.
Maternal mortality review committees can help identify maternal deaths, analyze their causes, and generate recommendations to improve care practices and prevent future deaths. The bill also directs action to reduce the stark racial disparities resulting in added risks for women of color. Take action to support bipartisan legislation to make sure that all maternal deaths are reviewed, recommendations put in place to prevent future deaths, and steps taken to eliminate racial disparities.
The Improving Access to Maternity Care Act, S.783.
One in four people live in an area where there are shortages of health-care providers. Too many women have to drive an hour or more to access essential maternity care. Take action to support bipartisan, no-cost legislation to add data collection of maternity providers to help bring midwives and obstetricians to these communities.
What has been the most rewarding experience while working on Every Mother Counts?
There have already been many milestones that really help to energize the work that we do. I am most proud of the work we do as a community and in partnership. I just returned from the Second March for Moms and was so inspired by the stories I heard there, the mutual respect and support between advocates and maternity care providers. This feels like a moment where the public is starting to ask important questions and demand action and justice. It’s a critical time to capture the attention of policy-makers. I am feeling very optimistic that we can achieve our mission.
Currently watching/reading/listening to (can be TV, film, novel, podcast, album, etc.):
I worked on a Mother’s Day playlist for Starbucks and Spotify that I am obsessed with at the moment—it features artists like Alela Diane and Amber Mark. I also just finished reading two great novels: Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, and Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. The most recent series I watched was Wild Wild Country on Netflix.
When you’re not working on Every Mother Counts, we can find you:
Running along the Hudson River, in a yoga class, or at home with my family.
You have held positions on the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council, the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Dean’s Advisors, and the advisory Board of New York University’s Nursing School. You also have a bachelor’s degree from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and you studied Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. How important do you think education is in making progressive change for global health?
Furthering my education was the best decision I ever made. My undergraduate work at NYU’s Gallatin School taught me discipline and allowed me to pursue so many interests. My graduate school experience at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health introduced me to so many friends and colleagues in my current field, the work I do through Every Mother Counts. Participating on advisory boards of these established institutions has provided continued education in areas such as global health that are still emerging, which is exciting. I am constantly inspired by leaders in the field who have paved the way for the work I am so committed to.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given:
Early on I was told to stay in every country or location where I worked as long as I could, and I did. Seeing and experiencing so much of the world in my formative years and early career has given me a truly global perspective. I still take every opportunity to travel and see the world.
Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life (a woman who inspires you, who you look up to)?
I am inspired daily by so many women in my universe. I am especially inspired by Sukti Dhital, cofounder of Nazdeek, one of Every Mother Counts’ grantee partners, who will be speaking at our upcoming MPower Luncheon. Nazdeek teaches marginalized communities in India to identify, document, and monitor health, sanitation, and nutrition violations on the part of the government, and to work through legal mechanisms to increase accountability. Sukti is a human rights lawyer and has been instrumental in securing landmark social and economic rights judgments in India.
How are you a Woman of Empowerment?
I am an empowered woman, and I use my energy to help other women to feel empowered in their lives.
My mission is:
To make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every woman, everywhere.