Christine Heenan with her children
In honor of Mother’s Day, the latest edition of In the Lead highlights the power of mothers and the importance of access to maternal care. We spoke with Christine Heenan, Women's Forum of New York member and Vice President of Global Policy and Advocacy for The Rockefeller Foundation, about a new Rockefeller campaign that centers on the crisis of maternal mortality, entitled #WithoutMom.
You joined the Rockefeller Foundation in Spring 2018. What is it about your position that excites you the most?
I’d say what excites me most is the mission and the people. The Rockefeller Foundation has a pretty ambitious mission: promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world. We advance that mission primarily through work in four areas: bringing renewable, off-grid energy to remote areas of the world limited by lack of electricity; improving nutrition by promoting nourishing, protective foods; improving health through better and more connected data systems; and supporting economic mobility for low-wage workers here in the United States. That work attracts scientists, advocates, policy analysts, global development experts…all of them united by an optimism for what’s solvable if we harness technology and expertise and partner across sectors to tackle big challenges. I am in awe of so many of my colleagues.
To honor Mother’s Day on May 12, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a campaign centered on maternal mortality. What inspired the idea to focus on this specific issue?
The leader of our health initiative, Naveen Rao, is a physician by training, and has spent much of his career leading the fight against maternal and child deaths. He explains that most women who die from complications in childbirth die from one of three things – seizure, sepsis or hemorrhage, usually within 24 hours of labor and delivery. It struck us, in talking about it, that those high-risk 24 hours are another way to define “Mother’s Day” – the 24 hours in which a woman becomes a mother, or dies trying. Our goal with this campaign is to sound the alarm: 830 women are dying every day from pregnancy and childbirth complications, and the overwhelming majority of those deaths are preventable. More than 70 countries celebrate Mother’s Day this Sunday, May 12, and we hope our short film and the #WithoutMom campaign reach people around the world with the reminder of how much we need and count on mothers, and inspire people to join the fight to end maternal deaths.
Keeping more mothers alive after childbirth is imperative, but the repercussions expand far beyond a single home or family. Talk to us about this ripple effect.
It truly is a ripple effect, especially in the developing world. In many countries, when a mother dies, the whole family is ripped apart. The infant is more likely to die. The children left at home are less likely to reach their fifth birthday. If they do live, the children are more likely to be pulled out of school. It’s much bigger than the family: the community, the whole nation suffers. It doesn’t have to be this way. The vast majority of maternal deaths are preventable with interventions that are relatively cheap and easy to use. I know this from personal experience: When I was pregnant with my son Alex, I suffered complications that could have been life-threatening, but they were not as I received the right care at the right time. Too many mothers suffer a different fate. Accessible, available health data can save lives, and this is a growing area of focus for The Rockefeller Foundation.
To augment the impact of this campaign, Rockefeller released a powerful video featuring prominent faces like Michelle Obama. Why did you decide to pursue a project of this scale, and what was it like putting it together?
We made two decisions early on that I think proved crucial. The first was that we would highlight the crisis in the United States. Traditionally, The Rockefeller Foundation has worked internationally in health. But it was impossible to mount a campaign about maternal mortality and not take on the issue here at home: U.S. maternal mortality rates are unacceptably high and actually on the rise, with mothers of color at up to four times greater risk. I think the second crucial decision was to design a campaign that deliberately put others forward, because this is a universal issue and the solutions depend on all of us. That’s reflected in the campaign creative – and there were so many famous tributes to mothers to choose from. It’s reflected in our Capitol Hill launch, co-hosted by Republican and Democratic members of Congress. And it’s reflected in our call to action at WithoutMom.org – which is to learn more about the many organizations doing important work to keep mothers healthy, from Black Mamas Matter Alliance to UNICEF to Every Mother Counts.
You’re a mom who has been able to explore the importance of motherhood to different cultures. What would you like to say about the importance of maternal health and uplifting mothers all over the world?
For one thing, I come from a large family full of powerful and inspiring women, from my own mother, stepmother, sister and sisters-in-law to my aunts, cousins and grandmothers. I had two amazing, powerful grandmothers, so for me my sense of what mothers can be and do started with them. My job enables me to encounter mothers in different cultures and circumstances all around the world, and no matter where you go, mothers are always the glue. They are the ones who make sure there is food on the table, who save for schooling for their kids, who manage the household and often an enterprise, as well: a farm, a shop, a market stall, a sewing collective. When we lose a mother, a family loses, children are at much greater risk and a community is diminished.