Exploring maternal mortality with Christy Turlington Burns

June 10, 2010
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Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently spoke on a Council on Foreign Relations panel on maternal health after a special screening of the film ‘No Woman, No Cry’ directed by Christy Turlington Burns and produced by Dallas Brennan Rexer. The film shows the dangers of childbirth when adequate medical care is unavailable. The film extraordinarily captures the real time drama of giving birth. It is a deeply affecting film, which makes the viewer aware of the high risks of procreation, particularly when coupled with poverty.

I recently spoke on a Council on Foreign Relations panel on maternal health after a special screening of the film ‘No Woman, No Cry’ directed by Christy Turlington Burns and produced by Dallas Brennan Rexer. The film shows the dangers of childbirth when adequate medical care is unavailable. The film extraordinarily captures the real time drama of giving birth. It is a deeply affecting film, which makes the viewer aware of the high risks of procreation, particularly when coupled with poverty.

Through excellent choice of music and footage, the film is able to create a mood from the very start and quiet one’s mind. It begins with a series of clips from home videos of Christy Turlington Burns obviously shot by her filmmaker husband Ed Burns. I was immediately captivated by the intimate images of Christy – a supermodel even more beautiful in all her pregnant glory. In one scene, she flashes a playful smile at the camera while proudly showing off her pregnant belly. In another scene, she shyly pulls her shirt down as she notices her pregnant belly peeking out and I feel as though I am privy to intimate moments.

Completely engaged in this relationship between mother and her unborn child, I find myself in the delivery room with them, excited as I see this new being brought into the world. Suddenly, my stomach lurches and in the delivery room there is a palpable sense of panic as Turlington Burns begins to hemorrhage. Her doctors immediately rush to remedy the problem and thankfully they are successful. Amazingly, her filmmaker husband continues to film throughout the ordeal. It is not only a pivotal point in the film but also in the life Turlington Burns as she realizes that she could have suffered the same fate as so many women around the world if she did not have access to medical care.

According to the World Health Organization, 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries where mothers often do not have access to proper medical care. Turlington Burns highlights this severe problem as she documents the experiences of pregnant women in Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Guatemala. The relationship between poverty and the risk of maternal mortality becomes evident in the film. In Tanzania, transport is highlighted as a major barrier. Turlington Burns drove one woman thirty-five miles to the nearest hospital so that she could deliver her baby in safe and sanitary conditions. In Bangladesh, she follows Monica, who is ready to give birth any day along with her BRAC Community Health Volunteer, Yasmin, who both live in Korail, the largest slum of Dhaka. They’ve traded cell phone numbers and been in regular touch over the course of the pregnancy. The plan was for Monica to give birth in one of BRAC’s safe birth huts located in Korail. In the middle of the night, Monica goes to the safe birth hut but due to complications must be transferred to a hospital in Dhaka. The film presents a poignant juxtaposition. As Turlington Burns emphasizes, she was fortunate enough to have adequate medical care. Other women and their families are not so lucky. The experience of Turlington Burns is not so different from that of a soon to be mother in Guatemala.

The film demonstrates that the issue of maternal mortality persists globally, even in the most advanced societies. In an interview with the family of an American woman who died during childbirth, the tears of the husband who lost his wife emphasize the heart wrenching impact that maternal mortality can have on families everywhere. In this way, the film functions as a strong call to action. It challenges the viewer to contemplate how he or she can contribute to the global campaign to reduce maternal mortality. Every minute a woman dies from a pregnancy related complication but 90 percent of these deaths are preventable.

The film was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York where all five screenings were sold out. The film was shown at the Women Deliver Conference in Washington D.C. this week. It is an incredibly accessible film that has the ability to elicit empathy regardless of gender, age, nationality or profession because we, as viewers, are able to share in the universal experience of birth. While awareness is the first step in the battle for maternal health, I strongly encourage you to see the film when it is released to the general public and visit www.everymothercounts.org to see what you can do.

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