From left: Alisa Goldberg, Hadine Joffe, Christy Turlington Burns and Nawal Nour

Pregnancy and childbirth can be one of the most joyous times in a woman’s life. It can also be one of the most perilous.

This was a reality that the 2023 Women’s Health Luncheon keynote speaker Christy Turlington Burns, MPH, experienced when she became a mother. Shortly after her eldest daughter’s birth in 2003, Turlington Burns experienced a life-threatening postpartum complication, losing liters of blood when her placenta had to be manually removed after it did not separate from the uterus on its own.

Turlington Burns survived and healed, thanks to the expert care she received in New York. She soon learned, however, that many women did not share her experience. Severe bleeding after childbirth is the leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide — an outcome that is largely preventable with access to high-quality care.

“That day — the day I became a mother — was also the day I became a global maternal health advocate,” said Turlington Burns. “It was unconscionable to me then that had I not had access to birth options, resources and quality, respectful maternity care, I might not have survived the birth of my daughter. And after 20 years, it continues to be unconscionable to me that geography, race and socioeconomic status can determine whether or not a woman survives pregnancy and childbirth.”

Turlington Burns, an international model who went on to establish the international nonprofit Every Mother Counts, shared her story and affinity for the Brigham with the hundreds of philanthropists, business leaders and women’s health advocates who attended the luncheon on May 19.

“There is an energy now to drive change around maternal health, but this isn’t new to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital community. While attention to this issue has waxed and waned, your hospital has remained committed to maternal health and dedicated to quality, respectful maternity care, like the midwifery model of care,” she said. “Maternal health advocates like me have so much to learn from your dedication, and we are fortunate to have you as allies — committed to ensuring a world where every mother counts.”

The annual fundraising event supports and showcases the groundbreaking work of the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, which strives to ignite change in women’s health by catalyzing research, advancing public policy and training the next generation of women’s health leaders. This year’s luncheon, hosted at the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, raised nearly $950,000 to support the center’s mission.

“The Connors Center has been a driving force in real change in how women are cared for around the world,” said Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and executive vice president at Mass General Brigham (MGB).

Hadine Joffe, MD, MSc, executive director of the Connors Center, reflected on all that the center has accomplished over the last two decades — noting that Connors Center scientists are pursuing trailblazing research in areas such as menopause and diseases that affect women at disproportionate rates.

“Our work is far from over, but if our past is any indication, I am filled with hope and optimism for all we can accomplish in the future,” Joffe said.

‘An All-Hands-on-Deck Situation’

In addition to its keynote speaker, the event featured a series of stirring presentations on the timely theme of “Reproductive Health: Advocacy | Education | Equity.”

This time last year, the future of reproductive health hung in the balance as the nation waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. On June 24, 2022, the court overturned decades of federally protected abortion rights made possible by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, leaving it to each state to dictate its legality.

Among those who worried deeply about the implications of that ruling was Alisa Goldberg, MD, MPH, director of the Brigham’s Division of Family Planning and the Complex Family Planning Fellowship. One of the luncheon’s featured speakers, Goldberg reflected on her growing concerns about the consequences of Dobbs, which has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable and significantly worsened existing health inequities.

“Laws that restrict abortion harm women, and we need to change the direction this country is going,” she said. “When it comes to abortion access, we are in an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

To illustrate her point, Goldberg narrated the stark differences for a woman seeking an abortion in Massachusetts versus one who lives in Texas. While the former could quickly and easily obtain a medication abortion from any number of providers in the state, with the service covered by MassHealth, a woman in Texas would face a vastly more difficult, expensive, medically invasive and prolonged journey.

Noting that one in four U.S. women will have an abortion by age 45, Goldberg emphasized that an important step everyone can take is to help normalize abortion as essential medical care that must be accessible and affordable to all.

“Most people have a picture in their mind of who needs an abortion, and these images are usually rooted in stigma,” she said. “There are so many reasons why people cannot be pregnant right now. And when things go wrong, sometimes people who never imagined they would have an abortion find that they need one.”

Showcasing the Brigham’s broad commitment to health equity and OB-GYN care services for women, Nawal Nour, MD, MPH, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, highlighted several examples of how the Brigham is transforming reproductive care. Among those was the Brigham’s contributions to the first in-utero fetal brain surgery in North America, which builds on a 20-year legacy of leading the country’s premier program for fetal heart procedures.

Nour also highlighted the institution’s abiding commitment to eliminating inequities in women’s health and reproductive care through innovative programs such as Birth Partners, which provides free doula services to select Black and Indigenous patients through MGB’s United Against Racism strategy.

“We really do care about equity in health care,” Nour said. “When we talk about systemic racism in our hospitals and how we need to improve, this is one of those programs making a difference.”