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Connecting Maternal Health, Faith, and Reproductive Justice for International Women’s Day: An Interview with Courtney Fowler

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Courtney Fowler

Courtney Fowler serves as the conference lay leader for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is comprised of 17 districts and 1,035 congregations in Kansas and Nebraska. Fowler is an ambassador for the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, where she advocates for international family planning and funding. She is also a member of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress. In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on Saturday, March 8, we have asked her to talk about her work on maternal and family health.

Sally Steenland: I want to start out by asking about your work with mothers and babies. In a lot of religious traditions, motherhood is held up as a valuable and blessed calling. I want to ask if you think our actions match our words in terms of how we value mothers. Is there a gap between the two? And what should we be doing to promote healthy mothers and healthy families?

Courtney Fowler: That is an important question because I definitely see that we value mothers and babies in media, in advertising; we see mothers and babies as positive images. But I see a disparity between our words and our actions. Every two minutes a woman dies in childbirth somewhere in the world. That statistic represents a lot of mothers lost and a lot of children growing up without a mother. It is my belief that we should be doing more to promote the health and wellness of mothers, women, and girls, and it starts with health care, specifically reproductive health care, to keep women healthy and safe. 

SS: That sounds like the work you are doing as a maternal health advocate for a project, Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, that is part of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

CF: The Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project strives for a world in which every woman can plan her family and the spacing of her children so that every family experiences God’s promise of abundant life. We see mothers taking on so many roles in families these days. In addition to caregiver, they are also the economic provider in many cases, and so the health of mothers is critical to ensuring that we are raising healthy children and healthy families. The connection to the planet is that healthy families make healthy and productive societies—and planet. 

SS: One of things you just mentioned was the importance of family planning so that women can plan their children and have families that thrive. Can you talk about how important family planning is to women’s flourishing and their families?

CF: It is so critical and, from a faith perspective, we see that women and girls are of sacred worth. Once you take that into your heart, then of course we want to care for women, of course we want to care for girls, of course we want to provide them with health care. It’s seeing that and knowing that not giving them health care accomplishes the very opposite. As we said before, it doesn’t match our words with our actions.

SS: You’re talking about family planning in terms of health care and caring for the whole person. On the national level and in states, there’s been public debate about religious objections from some employers to providing contraceptive coverage to women workers under the Affordable Care Act. Women need affordable, quality contraception. Do you see this debate playing out on the ground?   

CF: It’s really frustrating because we are talking about women’s lives. We are using the argument of religious freedom to take away women’s right to health care and their right to privacy. As I see it playing out nationally—I don’t have to look very far here in my own state of Kansas to see this—it’s a huge concern that only some faith voices seem to be bringing this conversation to the table. And so for me, it’s really important to add my own faith voice, where I am bringing compassion and reason to this conversation, and it’s important for other faith voices doing the same to be there as well.

SS: So what you are saying is it’s important to have faith voices that support women’s reproductive health and access to contraception, along with supporting religious liberty—and not have those two be opposed.

CF: That’s right. They’re certainly not opposed to each other. When you look at the faith that God has called us all to, which includes abundant life, really it is women and girls that care about their families and their health. The two need to work together [to meet] God’s desire for us all to have abundant health.

SS: You just mentioned living in Kansas, and you’ve also lived in South Africa. They are thousands and thousands of miles apart. Can you talk about what it’s like for mothers and for reproductive health in each of those places?

CF: Well, it’s interesting. Obviously there are so many cultural differences, but at the root of motherhood, it is the same basic desire to care for and protect your children. In South Africa, there is an obvious disparity of health care access. Women of economic means have access to really superb health care. Women, particularly women of native descent—such as Zulu or Xhosa women, whom I was familiar with—seem to experience limited care, as in maybe they didn’t seek medical assistance until they were in labor, or there was limited prenatal care, and so when they were seeking care, they were faced with poorly equipped medical clinics. And actually sadly, the HIV/AIDS crisis at the time I lived there was ravaging the country.

I lived in Durban, South Africa, which is in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which at one point in time had the highest rate of HIV in the world. One in four people were affected. People didn’t have access to reproductive health care and basic contraceptives. The government leaders at the time rather famously denied any connection between the disease and the HIV virus and its causes.

So that was a huge disparity. In Kansas, obviously, we have health care. But even the phrase “reproductive health” has become such a lightning rod that it elicits controversy. And people do not want to enter into what might be controversial conversations. They’d rather change the subject, so that’s kind of alarming too. There are so many examples of reproductive health for women that are at risk here: denying insurance coverage for birth control or opting out of Medicaid expansion, which would have provided reproductive health care to women trying to make ends meet. It’s a challenging climate for women’s health here in Kansas.

SS: I like that you connected mothers around the world who want the best for their children and families with women in this country. When you talk about your work on global maternal health with audiences in the United States, what do you find? Do people get interested and concerned, or do they think, “That’s so far away. I’ve got a lot on my own plate right here.”

CF: I have been so pleasantly surprised as I have gone out to speak to groups—specifically, churches and women’s groups such as United Methodist Women. I frame it in terms of the ministry work that The United Methodist Church is doing to help improve maternal care around the world because it’s such an important ministry in our church.

When people have someone make the connection between what reproductive health care means to women who lack access to it and the consequences for their children who may be left behind when their parents die, when people make that connection through words and pictures, they realize, “Wow. This really is an important issue. This is part of our spiritual work and ministry; it’s part of our work in the church.”

And that is the best feeling for me, the value I get out of doing what I do. I like making that connection for people and helping them see that we are all connected, from a woman’s lack of reproductive health care in Africa to the risk for women in Kansas. And once you make that connection, you can really see a change in people, especially women and those who’ve seen where we were before in Kansas when we had access to reproductive health care and reasonable people leading the legislature. Yeah, I really enjoy making that connection.

SS: I want to follow up in terms of your work in South Africa. You recently wrote a beautiful piece about living in South Africa and the work you did there. You talked about finding your spiritual voice in your work. You were not a missionary per se, but your faith and spirituality were infused in what you did—and actually made you bolder.

CF: Yes! I had a friend who was part of an organization that provided early childhood development to orphanages. They would go in and read books, play with toys, and spend time with babies and small children once or twice a week—very limited, actually. It’s very gripping to be in that setting with children who have lost their parents. Most had lost their parents due to the HIV/AIDS crisis—you could make that direct link to why they were there.

It’s a feeling I will never quite get over, and I’ve spent the past 10 years wrestling and trying to come to terms with what I experienced there. What drives me is that obvious connection: If their parents had access to reproductive health care, they might have a different life. These orphanages are doing the best they can with the resources they have, but what a loss it is to these children to not have a mother. It affects me even to this day.

SS: You carry that in the work that you do and the presentations you make. We all know how important it is for children to grow up with a parent and how profound that loss can be. And yet we often shut out the experiences of others who are far away and whom we don’t know.

CF: It was advocacy training through the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project that helped me claim my voice, helped me find my passion, and live that out through my faith. So it’s been a blessing to be able to do that. I’m so happy when I’m invited to places and I can share this story. It’s a calling that I get to live out.

SS: Your passion is inspiring and compelling. We are happy that you are with us this year as one of the leaders in our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. Can you talk about why that work feels important to you?

CF: Yes, absolutely. It’s such a privilege to be part of a community that speaks from a faith perspective and advocates for those whose voices aren’t heard. People need to hear from faith voices that come from compassion and bring reason to the table. Reproductive justice speaks to a woman’s and a mother’s need for health care so she can plan her family and enjoy the abundant life that God intends. The faith community needs to be reminded of this.

On a personal note, I have two daughters: One is 16, and one is 12. It is important to me that they see their mother claiming and trusting her faith and using her voice to speak up when she sees injustice. That is also an important element of my faith, trusting that God can use me to help others in some way. The Bible gives us so many examples of strong women whose faith compelled them to speak out for others or act bravely. It’s important to me that my own girls see me living into my faith in that way. The Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute is a powerful voice for those whose voices aren’t heard, so I feel proud to be a member.

SS: I’ve got one last question, Courtney. You live in Kansas, which in some ways has been ground zero for some of the attacks on women’s reproductive health. At the same time, our conversation has been filled with energy and purpose. What gets you up in the morning and gives you hope to keep on going?

CF: I am so hopeful. When I see Kansas being portrayed in such a negative way, it doesn’t feel like the Kansas I know. It doesn’t feel like the people around me that I know. It doesn’t feel like anything I recognize about this state, which does have great people, smart people, and passionate people.

And I realize it’s faith voices driving these controversies—they are just loud. They’re the ones getting heard. What gives me hope is that I have my own faith voice to add, and when I do, it resonates with people. I see people listening and understanding what I say, including that it’s important for us all to speak out.

I visit a lot of rural churches way out in the country, and I see a lot of great people who maybe haven’t had a voice, and I can add a different perspective to what they’re hearing. I’m so happy to do that because I know that they are caring people, they love children, they care about women and women’s health—and they just need someone to make that connection. They also need to know that their church is doing really valuable ministry in the world. They can claim that as part of their own faith. Really, I’m driven by a lot of positive things, and I feel very optimistic that one relationship at a time, we can make a difference.

SS: Well, that gives us hope. Maybe the tide is turning—and you’re helping do that by bringing together voices for justice and mercy, for women and faith, so that they will get heard in the public debate and make a change.

CF: I really hope they do. I feel like it can happen, and I hope and pray that it does.

SS: Courtney, if it does, a lot will be through the great work you’re doing. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

CF: Thank you. My pleasure.

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. You can learn more about this project here.

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