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The Intersection of Faith and Maternal Public Health

Religion and Female Reproductive Health Are More Closely Connected Than Some May Think

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SOURCE: Katey Zeh

Listen to the interview (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Katey Zeh is a consultant for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, where she coordinates the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative. In this capacity she mobilizes United Methodists in the United States to serve as advocates for international family planning and funding. Katey also serves on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the newly formed Carolina Abortion Fund. She has worked at the Center for Health and Gender Equity and the Religious Institute, where she researched the intersections of economic and reproductive justice and created the Congo Sabbath Initiative to educate congregations about sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sally Steenland: Let’s get right to it. You recently started something called “No More Bills for the Pills” that has to do with the Affordable Care Act. What is it?

Katey Zeh: It started as an accident, and I’ve been surprised by the response it’s gotten. This past week I had an experience that made me realize that in my own advocacy for women’s health, I tend to forget how the policies I’m advocating for apply to my own life. I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and wasn’t even thinking I might be covered under the Affordable Care Act’s provision that includes a no co-pay provision for contraception. I was pleasantly surprised when my bill was zero dollars and zero cents.

When I got home I wanted to share this with friends, so I snapped a photo of my receipt showing the zero dollars and zero cents, and posted it on Facebook with a comment: “Thank you Affordable Care Act.”

Immediately my friends were liking it and sharing it with their friends. They said I should do something bigger, so I started a Tumblr blog called “No More Bills for the Pills.” The next morning it was on Planned Parenthood’s Facebook site and then on the ThinkProgress Tumblr account. That afternoon it got picked up by the Obama campaign. Since I posted that picture, it’s been shared about 8,000 times, so clearly this is something that is resonating with a lot of people. My hope is that it provides a platform for others to share their stories and pictures of their receipts so that we can show the real impact and our gratitude for these policies.

SS: You bring up something important, which is connecting your personal life with public policies. Here the two came together in an important way.

KZ: Right, and it’s so rare to have a moment where you see your own advocacy having that real impact. I thought it was a key moment that I needed to share, and I’m just glad other people related with it too.

SS: I want to ask about the work you do with the United Methodist Church on women’s health. You support a full range of reproductive services. Why is that important from a women’s health angle and also from a religious perspective?

KZ: From both a women’s health and a religious perspective, this is about honoring and respecting women and their bodies, and meeting women where they are. Too often women are reduced to their reproductive organs, and this is unacceptable for me. Every person seeking care should be treated as a whole person, and that means we need to offer a full range of integrated services.

I think about this a lot when I think about global women. If a woman is in rural Kenya, let’s say, and she is able to make the journey by foot to a clinic and is going to get HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, while she’s there she should also have access to a range of other reproductive health services such as family planning. Not only does this ensure the best health outcome for her, but it empowers her with the tools and resources she needs to make the best decisions about her own body, her own life, and her own family.

Theologically the basis for my work on maternal health and family planning is rooted in a passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus said to his disciples that he came to bring “abundant life.” I am always thinking about what abundant life means in terms of maternal health and family planning. It doesn’t mean that we’re just surviving. It means that God’s desire for all people—and mothers specifically—is to have a thriving life, and that includes maternal health. When a mother is healthy, she’s more likely to have a healthy child. That trickles down to creating healthy communities and a healthy planet.

As a person of faith, this matters to me deeply because I believe we are all connected to each other. When a mother loses her life in childbirth, and her child grows up motherless, that impacts me too. We suffer that loss too. As people of faith, we do not turn our backs from our sisters and brothers who are struggling even if they live on the other side of the world.

SS: That is a powerful image. The circle includes women and gets a little bigger for families and for communities, and eventually you’re talking about the planet, which is the name of your initiative: Healthy Families, Healthy Planet. I was reading one of your fact sheets, and it had a horrific statistic: Globally a woman dies every two minutes from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Tell us about the women behind those numbers.

KZ: When I first started working, the statistic was that a woman dies every minute, so since then we have made some progress. But these numbers are unacceptably high. Most of these deaths are preventable, and we know the health interventions that can save women’s lives.

It is especially important to talk about that statistic here in the United States, where the narrative around pregnancy and childbirth is that it is beautiful and natural. For some women it is, but the truth is that for many women it isn’t. It is very dangerous to their health.

The women who die in childbirth mostly live in the global south, in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Many get married before their 18th birthday and begin giving birth every year. A woman could potentially have 20 children, if she survives. Many of the women don’t have access to health workers or any kind of health care, or even a place to give birth once they go in to labor. Many die from things that are preventable or treatable such as infections or hemorrhage.

But to me the saddest part is that many of these women die from pregnancies that could have been avoided if they had the tools and information they needed. Without family planning, women aren’t able to space their pregnancies, and so their bodies don’t have a chance to heal before they get pregnant again. For these women pregnancies can become a life-threatening condition and, in many cases, a death sentence.

SS: You’re talking about contraception as a life-saving good that can promote stronger families and healthier babies. So often in this country the opposition to contraception is religious, and the debate is framed as religious freedom versus women’s health. But you’re adding to the health argument a religious one that supports contraception.

KZ: Yes, and it’s important for that perspective to be voiced more often so that there is a more nuanced view of what faith actually has to say about contraception and other reproductive health matters.

SS: I want to ask about the grassroots advocacy you’re doing in this country around the initiative Healthy Families, Healthy Planet.

KZ: This is so exciting. We did our first training this past October and trained about 35 people in Denver. This year we’ll be training an additional 45 people all over the United States. My vision is to bring together a powerful and diverse group of people of faith, who are passionate about justice, health, and women’s empowerment. We want to share what is happening to the world’s women, and then empower and inspire them to claim their own voices as advocates for the world’s women when they return to their communities. Whether they talk with their local pastor or bishop, representative or senator, they will be champions for women’s health. My hope is that they will call upon others to join them in taking action.

We are working toward a world where every woman has the tools she needs to plan her life and where every pregnancy is a cause for celebration and not fear.

SS: That is a beautiful vision. I’d like to ask another question about the United Methodist Church. Every four years you have a general conference—and you recently had one where you submitted a petition on maternal health. What happened?

KZ: Well, in short, it passed.

SS: Congratulations!

KZ: Thank you. That means it will be included as an official statement in our book of resolutions. I drafted it back in the winter of 2010 because as I was scanning our United Methodist Social Principles Book and Resolutions, I could only find a handful of references to the issue of maternal public health. There was nothing that went into detail about the complexity of this issue.

The United Methodist Church is a global church so I felt this was something that needed to be named in a global context. The resolution explores the health and cultural barriers that stand in the way of good health outcomes for women and references some of our biblical traditions. It connects Bible stories of women who died in childbirth to women’s suffering today.

The resolution calls the church to take action in a number of ways, including the kind of advocacy our project is engaged in. Moving forward, we hope this resolution will be an educational tool that we can take to churches and United Methodist conferences. We hope it will be powerful to have this official doctrine of the church to strengthen our denominational basis for doing advocacy work on maternal health. We will probably be taking it on an advocacy visit to Capitol Hill, as well.

SS: I like that you have included stories of women in the Bible.

KZ: I did a piece this past December around Advent. For me the real miracle of the Christmas story is that Mary survived. She was in a dirty stable, a young woman who managed to have a healthy birth. That is something that should be celebrated.

SS: I want to ask about the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute here at CAP. As a leader in the institute, what do you see as the most pressing issues regarding reproductive justice and faith in the coming months?

KZ: Domestically there is a role for more people of faith to talk about their support for contraception, not only as something that is permissible in their faith traditions but also as something that is encouraged. For example, the United Methodist Church thinks it is our duty to consider the impact on the world when we are planning our families and deciding how many children we would like to have. The decision to delay or prevent a pregnancy through family planning is seen by the church as an ethical choice.

The problem is that no one is saying this publicly. That perspective is missing in conversations around the Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive provision. Those of us who come from traditions supportive of family planning need to make that statement more often.

Looking globally, the same is true. We just had this great moment in London—the London Family Planning Summit—that happened in July. International family planning was at the forefront of the international stage. It is something we have to continue to build on, and this is especially important for the United States. We have been a leader on family planning for a long time, but because of budget issues and political divisions, that leadership is in danger of dwindling. It is critical for faith leaders to talk about the importance of investing in these programs, not only in the United States but also around the world.

SS: When you look at the work you are doing, what are some challenges you face, and then, to flip the coin, what excites you?

KZ: The first is to educate our secular counterparts that people of faith can be and are supportive of reproductive health and rights—and have been for a long time. This comes up no matter where I am. People are surprised that people of faith are supportive of reproductive justice issues. We have to do the hard work of dispelling the myth that all religious people are against reproductive decision making.

The second is the flip side—to help people connect their religious beliefs to reproductive justice issues because for so long we’ve been afraid to talk about sexuality and reproductive justice in our faith communities. But the world’s women can’t wait for us to get over embarrassment or hesitation on this. It is time for us to put these things aside, and be prophetic and meet people where they are.

It is an exciting time to be working on these issues because even though change is slow, it is deep when it happens in the church. When I meet with a women’s group or a congregation, and I share the statistics and stories from people on the ground, I see people being changed. I see their eyes being opened, and their hearts being broken—they want to do something about this. So I feel grateful for the opportunity to be involved as an advocate. I am inspired by the people I meet along the journey who are working alongside me to create a better world for women and their families.

When things get tough or discouraging, I remember that I am not alone in this work. I have wonderful colleagues and people waiting to hear about this, who will join a community that is working to help create a healthier world for women and for all people.

SS: It used to be a woman died every minute from complications of pregnancy or childbirth, and now it is every two minutes. That is still far too often, but more lived are being saved.

KZ: It means that what we are doing is working. We just need to do more of it.

SS: Thank you so much, Katey. It has been great talking to you and learning more about your work.

KZ: Thank you, Sally, for having me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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