According to the World Health Organization, about 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. This global crisis is one that Dr. Karen Wolk Feinstein is intent on alleviating.
The Lower Lounge of the William Pitt Union was filled with paintings, photographs and interactive exhibits on June 8 for Birthing a Movement, a pop-up art exhibit that addressed the maternal mortality crisis in the United States. The Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Women’s Health Activist Movement Global partnered with the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health for the opening reception of this activist exhibit, which showcased art from several local women artists.
Dr. Karen Feinstein, president and CEO of the JHF, said that the event was created as a result of bringing a variety of women’s organizations together to focus on a unified cause.
“[The JHF] had a big idea competition in Pittsburgh to see if we could get a whole group of women’s organizations to agree on a single focus, on something that we could wrap our arms around and that we’d work together on. Everybody agreed on maternal mortality,” Feinstein said. “We realized the pregnancy experience in the United States is really well below what it could be — there’s so much potential.”
One of the featured exhibits was a live painting experience performed by local painter and fabric sculptor H. Gene Thompson. Thompson set up an easel on the patio of the union, painting new additions to a blank circular canvas as people approached and shared their own personal experiences. Images on the canvas included a mother breastfeeding, a pack of birth control pills and a metal coat hanger, which someone had brought to the event and handed to Thompson as a powerful symbol of solidarity.
“The collective idea of this painting is ‘I’m painting, but I’m available for processing ideas or processing thoughts around a pretty open spectrum of these issues, and me trying to hold space for people to come at these issues in ways that actually do represent their situations,’” Thompson said. “Reproductive health is an important issue to all people — it’s something that all of us are experiencing in some way or another.”
Painter and mixed-media artist Margot Dermody was another local artist who presented her work at the exhibit. She had two paintings on display — both of which were inspired by her experience of being a mother of two boys. She described one of her abstract acrylic paintings, titled “Leaning Into Tomorrow,” as being a project of hope and love.
“It reminds me of how I feel about being a parent. There’s so much in there that needs to come out, but it’s all kind of hidden — almost like a birthing. It symbolizes the hope that I want everyone to feel when they raise their kids that everything will be okay for them,” Dermody said.
This hope that everything will be okay also speaks to the hope the JHF has for maternal health care in the United States to improve, enhancing the quality of care for mothers and their babies from the very beginning. The United States falls far behind other developed countries when it comes to maternal health care and, consequently, the maternal mortality rate here is much higher. According to Feinstein, bringing attention to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children could be a solution.
On April 8, Gov. Tom Wolf named May as WIC month in Pennsylvania to bring attention to nutrition-related health for children and improving birth outcomes for women and their babies. While the program has made efforts in assisting low-income mothers with breastfeeding, increasing infant birth weights and providing nutritious food to children, the participation rate for the WIC Program is much lower in Pennsylvania compared to other states.
According to an article Feinstein wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May of this year, the state of Maryland features many services Pennsylvania lacks. In Maryland, WIC clinics offer flexible hours and walk-in appointments, the option to complete some of the required nutrition education online and no-pain hemoglobin testing in place of finger-stick tests.
“I feel like the time is now. Sometimes if you get your timing right, if you push a worthy project, that’s when you start making progress, so we wanted to get as close to May as we could and organize something that would bring attention to the WIC program,” Feinstein said.
Along with bringing attention to the WIC Program, Feinstein also feels that the United States needs to make more progress in the field of maternal health care as a whole. While researching the maternal health care in Australia, Feinstein was amazed by the advancements she witnessed.
“In the United States, we think of a successful pregnancy as the baby was delivered, and mom and baby are doing well — and that’s it. It’s like two or three days later. Mom goes home. Everyone’s alive. But health is so much more than that,” Feinstein said. “In Australia, you are given a risk assessment almost immediately … You get specialized midwives who help you in everything from not only preparing for birth, but during birth and then afterwards with lactation and the mother-child relationship.”
Jessica Burke, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, was also in attendance. She has conducted extensive research in her field on the disparities in race, location, class and other social factors that all affect maternal health care and noted that even though people know what issues exist, they stumble in moving forward and knowing what to do to make these situations better.
“Within public health, we talk a lot about the upstream causes of all of these issues — thinking about access to education, poverty, racism — I mean all these things that are social determinants of health,” Burke said. “We need to figure out a way to address those — the treatment side is too late. When you’re getting people in the clinic with and it’s an unintended pregnancy, you can do a lot there, but you can move even before that to do the prevention side.”
While people like Burke have the opportunity to share their opinions on the issues surrounding women’s health care in their own educational settings, the exhibit itself offered a new outlet for people to express their views and concerns through artistic expression and analysis of the works on display at the event.
Burke commended the JHF and WHAMglobal for organizing an environment for people to share their experiences and concerns in an educated, unified and creative way.
“The JHF is an amazing partner that’s been working with many faculty and students throughout the school,” Burke said. “Our school does have seven departments that cover a range of approaches to public health, so the idea that we have so many different pieces that touch on women’s health and how we partner and come together, that’s where the JHF has been amazingly supportive, facilitating things like this where we can all talk to each other about it.”