Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., founder of Hope Through Healing Hands, and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, led a community conversation Monday in Belmont’s Maddox Grand Atrium on “The Mother & Child Project: Simple Steps to Saving Lives in the Developing World.” This was the first public event held by the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide, a joint partnership of Hope Through Healing Hands (HTHH), a Nashville-based global health organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
More than 250 individuals representing the faith community, global health NGO and higher-education sectors throughout greater Nashville attended the discussion, hosted by Belmont University. In addition to opening the event, Belmont Provost Dr. Thomas Burns and Hope Through Healing Hands (HTHH) Executive Director Dr. Jenny Eaton Dyer also announced that this fall they would award the first Frist Global Health Fellowship to enable a Belmont graduate student to be immersed for a semester in a global health experience.
U.S. Olympic figure skating champion Scott Hamilton, who with his wife Tracie is an active global health advocate, moderated the event, posing questions to Frist and Gates about their experiences.
“As I began to talk with women around the world, it became very clear to me the spacing and timing of pregnancies we take for granted in the U.S. is a matter of life and death for them,” said Gates. “So I got very involved in contraceptives, because it truly starts the cycle of life, where they can feed their children, get their children in school, and honestly, not die themselves.”
Sen. Frist agreed, saying, “Contraception is a pro-life cause.” He went on to explain that, “…if you delay first pregnancy to 18 years old, you can increase survival in countries where one in 39 women die in childbirth, and cut the chance of children dying by 30 percent, enabling them to stay in school and become productive members of families.”
“Second, if you can push out the interval between pregnancies to three year period, the child is twice as likely to survive the newborn stage.”
Today, more than 200 million women in developing countries want the ability to plan if and when they become pregnant, but lack access to information about planning their families. Increasing access to a range of contraceptive options, and providing women with the ability to time and space their births, is critical to improving the health of mothers and children.
At the event, Gates reflected on her upbringing in Dallas, Texas, where she attended Catholic parochial school from grades K-12, and confirmed she remains a practicing member of the Catholic Church. While Gates recognizes the tension between her work and the Church’s position on contraceptives, she has found common ground on healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, even though organizations embrace different tools to achieve it.
Sen. Frist expressed his support for Gates’s efforts, explaining that the Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide has a critical role to play in engaging members of the faith community to help disseminate this simple message.
He likened this initiative to a similar movement of Americans in 2002 that shared a vision with houses of worship across all faiths, which lead to the support and eventual funding of PEPFAR, the largest health initiative in history that turned the tide on the HIV/AIDS.
“The millions of people dying of HIV/AIDS worldwide led to a major U.S. tax-payer led movement to save lives, resulting in more than what is now 12.9 million individuals currently on anti-retroviral medicine,” he said, noting the Coalition’s efforts could save over 287,000 women’s lives each year.
The Faith Based Coalition on Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide’s mission is to galvanize support among faith leaders across the U.S. on the issues of maternal, newborn and child health in developing countries. The coalition will place a particular emphasis on the benefits of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, including access to a range of contraceptive options, in alignment with its members’ unifying values and religious beliefs.
Several faith leaders already involved in this issue also participated in the program by echoing their support of this new initiative. “The best way to see change in Africa is to change the lives of African mothers,” said Steve Taylor, recording artist and filmmaker.
Jena Lee Nardella, co-founder with Jars of Clay of Blood:Water Mission, shared their experience in the global fight against HIV/AIDS. “We were inspired not by the statistics, but by the compelling stories. As a Church, let’s not forget to tell the story, but make it personal.”
Mike Glenn, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, added, “The Evangelical church is often accused of loving the child and not the mother; but in doing so, we lose God’s mosaic. We believe in ‘Imago Dei,’ the dignity of every human being.”
“It all comes down to the mother and child nexus and the healthy timing and spacing of births,” Sen. Frist concluded.
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