Learning to Advocate for Maternal Health

United Methodist Women and the General Board of Church and Society train advocates and promote maternal health.

Learning to Advocate for Maternal Health
United Methodist Women and General Board of Church and Society lead training for maternal health advocacy, United Methodist Building.

You would think that in a country as wealthy as the United States, women would not die during childbirth. But you would be wrong.

According to a recent report by the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, between 2010 and 2014, maternal mortality rates in the United States increased 27 percent, going from 19 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010 to nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014. In Texas, the rate doubled between 2010 and 2012.

These startling statistics were fresh on the minds of a group of United Methodist Women members and partners who gathered in April 2017 in Washington, D.C., to do something about this trend. The meeting at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, held in partnership with United Methodist Women and the General Board of Church and Society, trained the group to become advocates for maternal health.

A great need for advocates

Mollie Vickery, United Methodist Women’s executive for children, youth and family advocacy, said that there is a great need for advocates in this area.

“Routinely, historically, funding for women’s health gets left behind or placed on the chopping block,” she said. “We have, in this country, a maternal death rate that is going up, and women’s health is something that United Methodist Women has been historically committed to since our earliest days.”

One presenter at the training was Beth Collins-Sharp, the director of program innovation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health.

“Why are women still dying in childbirth?” Collins-Sharp asked. “It’s 2017.”

As she explored the rising maternal death rate in the United States, she pointed to many factors, among them poverty, race, age and access to health care.

For example, she said, 76 percent of subsidized housing in the United States has a female head of household. The chances that a woman living in that setting suffers from poor health is high.

Many women also don’t know that they’re HIV positive, Collins-Sharp said. “One in four people living with HIV is a woman,” she said. “Only 32 percent of HIV-positive women have the virus under control. Black women, who are 14 percent of the U.S. population, account for 60 percent of new HIV infections in women. This is horrible.”

Collins-Sharp also touched on opioid and heroin use and its increase among women. “It’s been dramatic,” she said. “Rates of heroin use have doubled among women, and prescription opioid use has increased 400 percent.”

Zika also presents new challenges, she added, saying the virus can be passed by pregnant women to their fetus. It can also be transmitted sexually, she said.

Continuing the work

Susan Burton, director of women’s and children’s advocacy at Church and Society, said that the training brought together people from five states where there are members of Congress who are “particularly influential” in making funding decisions about women’s health. Residents of Texas, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee attended the training.

“Our hope is that this advocacy training won’t stop with just this week,” Burton said. “These are folks who will go back home and continue to work on this issue on a state and federal level.”

Burton led a session on justice and mercy—and the differences between the two—to help lay the groundwork for advocacy.

“When we think about power, for example,” she said, “who has the ability to make decisions impacting which groups of people? We know there are lots of women and girls unable to make the decisions they want to make in terms of their economic future because they get pregnant. In some ways, the consequences that women and girls face are not the same as men and boys face, because they don’t have to drop of school.”

One of the systemic issues around maternal health, Burton, said, deals with reducing unintended pregnancies. And that means more than abortion.

“We don’t want abortions to happen,” she said. “We don’t want any woman to have an abortion. Reducing unintended pregnancies means we’re working to stop rape and sexual assault, working to stop incest, working to make sure women have access to family planning and reproductive health, and much more.”

Vickery said that one of United Methodist Women’s commitments is to get maternal mortality review committees in every state. These committees are typically made up of OB-GYNs, nurses, doctors, social workers and other health care professionals. A review of deaths among women of reproductive age is done to see if any are pregnancy-related.

Globally, United Methodist Women wants to help local communities assess the needs and risks in their own areas and assess how United Methodist Women can “come alongside” and support them, she said.

Some of the participants who came for the advocacy training also were scheduled to visit lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Vickery said. “It’s an opportunity for our people who come for advocacy training to go and learn what a legislative ‘ask’ looks like,” she said. And while those visits aren’t limited to the topic of maternal health, Vickery said those visits focused on the needs and issues of women.

Vickery said that the advocates trained in Washington will go back to their local settings and educate others on this growing concern.

“The first step is education,” she said, “and then we’ll plan events at the local communities to educate congregations and communities. We’ll also connect with coalitions and groups working on this same issue. Every context is different, and we encourage people to work on what their needs are at home.”

Learning to be a better advocate

Megan Hale, a deaconess from Arlington, Texas, said that when she learned of the high maternal mortality rate in her state, she was surprised. After being invited to attend the advocacy training, she did some research and discovered that Texas is “one of the worst states for maternal health.”

“I’m here to learn more and be a better advocate,” she said. Noting that the Texas legislature was in session while she was in D.C., Hale said that maternal mortality was absent from their agenda.

“They’re busy talking about ‘bathroom bills’ and other things, but not so much this,” she said. “There’s a disproportionate number of black women who die within 42 days of giving birth. I want to know why that is.”

Billie Ray, a member of Grace United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, took the training because she is an ambassador of maternal and child health through the United Methodist Healthy Families/Healthy Planet initiative. She is also a team member of the Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women.

“I am an advocate in my community,” Ray said. “We provide advocacy between the local community and legislators who are decision makers, and they allocate funding for maternal health care.”

Being from Central Texas, she said, she is right in the middle of this issue. “This type of training helps us learn what the needs are and why we are devoting ourselves to this issue,” she said.

Where she lives now—Tarrant County, Texas—has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the state to go along with a high teenage pregnancy rate and high maternal mortality rate. “You would think, in these times, that this wouldn’t be happening, but it is. It’s really tragic,” Ray said.

The Rev. Jennifer Long serves as the pastor of mission and outreach at Morning Star Church, a United Methodist congregation in the western suburban area of St. Louis. The ministry at her church isn’t geared only toward maternal health, she said, but most of the people they see are mothers, and most of them are single mothers.

“As we look at their situations and try and walk them toward a place of stability,” she said, “lots of times, that involves their medical needs, insurance and the care of their children.”

Long, who also serves as the chair of the mission, service and justice team for the Missouri Annual Conference and was that conference’s field coordinator for Imagine No Malaria, had malaria herself when she was pregnant with her fourth child.

“That opened my eyes to the needs of women and children throughout the world,” she said. “I was just heartbroken that there were women and children who will die simply because they live on the other side of the ocean.”

Her son, who is now 11, was born healthy.

Modeling women in leadership

Burton said the church needs to be sharing more of the stories from women who are impacted by policies and laws that affect their health. The church also needs to take the lead in modeling women in leadership, such as the number of women on staff and the number of women in decision-making positions.

“Where is it that we’re holding up women to be respected?” she asked. “Because that becomes a model for what’s happening in families.”

Long is hoping to come to a point where people of faith can talk about maternal health without it becoming divisive. How do we teach our churches, Long asked, and our communities in a way that calms the waters?

“There are parts of this issue that are very political in the church, and we see that,” Long said. “But how do we begin to cross those bridges so that people can recognize that we’re talking about basic health care and needs of women and children that we all love and care for?”

The Rev. Erik Alsgaard serves as the managing editor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Posted or updated: 9/7/2017 12:00:00 AM

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