Being Pro-Life on a Global Scale
A conversation with Dr. Jenny Dyer, executive director of Hope Through Healing Hands
Interview by Jennifer Carpenter
Our words have great power. Saying one is "pro-life" carries with it a host of values and stigmas. Saying one believes in "family planning" also carries with it a host of values and stigmas. One of the core values of ESA is to uphold the belief that all life matters, from "the womb to the tomb." All life also means all life in all nations.
What many of us do not grasp—for various reasons—is that millions of mothers and children are dying all over the world, and a large percentage of these deaths are from preventable causes. The statistics look something like this:
- Every year, complications in pregnancy and childbirth kill nearly 300,000 women and permanently disable many more.
- 99% of these deaths are in developing countries, and 80% of these are preventable.
- Up to 25% of girls in developing countries drop out of school due to unintended pregnancies.
- 42 million unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, and 67,000 women will die because of abortion-related injuries (with millions more suffering complications and long-term injuries).
How can we change these appalling statistics? Hope Through Healing Hands is doing just that—directly addressing these issues and in the process changing the lives of millions of women and children.
ESA recently had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Jenny Dyer, the organization's executive director.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. How exactly did you get involved with Hope Through Healing Hands?
Jenny Dyer: I ran Bono's faith outreach nationally with the ONE campaign for about six years, really galvanizing faith leaders across the US—pastors, churches, musicians, authors, athletes, non-profit leaders, and the like. We were raising awareness and speaking out against AIDS and poverty. Then I started having children and wanted to be closer to my children. I had worked with Senator Frist for a while as well, since he was my senator here in Tennessee, and he and I decided to re-launch a project of his that had lain dormant called "Hope Through Healing Hands," and that's where I've been since. We have done medical missions and all kinds of emergency relief campaigns; we have built the Tennessee Global Health Coalition; and now we have partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a faith-based coalition for healthy mothers and children worldwide.
With all the facts and figures available on the "Hope Through Healing Hands" website, why aren't more people talking about this?
In the past, the language around family planning has, of course, been divisive and even a bit provocative as a euphemism for abortion. Part of our job is trying to create new language for a new dialogue around the importance of family planning. We are really getting at the crux of the issue, which is healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, and really trying to inform faith-based communities about why it's critically important for women in developing nations to better time their pregnancies and hopefully have their first pregnancy in their early 20s rather than their teens, because—well, frankly, because of survival rates.
What are these rates?
Women are two times more likely to survive complications through childbirth if they can wait until their early 20s. Then, if they can space those children out at least three years apart, the newborn is more likely to survive. Then the newborn has more access to physical, emotional, and cognitive needs, because the mother is more available to provide for these needs.
Just by informed waiting? That's amazing.
Yes, it is. So, if what we are saying we want to do is decrease infant and maternal mortality rates, we're going to have to look at family planning and the array of options for women in developing nations across the world. We support a variety of methods, but we do not support abortion. We are a pro-life organization, but we do support fertility awareness. This can include things like cycle beads so women can know about their cycle, know when they are ovulating, and can better plan their families on a non-hormonal method. This way they can know when they should or should not have sex based on whether or not they want to get pregnant, and various methods of contraception.
Not everybody supports every single contraceptive, but that's okay. We've created this big tent allowing for that disagreement, but uniting under the fact that we are about saving the lives of these women and children. In doing so, it is going to take increased dialogue, and protecting and increasing US governmental funding for maternal, newborn, and child health and international family planning.
How important is access to education about healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies?
Access to education is critical to the 220 million women who say, "I do not know how to plan and how to prevent these pregnancies!" "I need methods." "I need services." "I need education!"
You've mentioned receiving some pushback regarding this work from faith leaders. If you could get a few key points across to faith leaders about this work, what would they be?
Sometimes we don't even use the language of "family planning" but instead prefer to use the language "healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies," because it better defines the work we do. What we want people to know is we are getting down to the issues around maternal mortality, infant mortality, and child survival. We are speaking to life or death issues for these women and children who, with some simple education and some simple means to contraceptives, could have their lives saved. And, this is of critical importance, because there are over 6.5 million children who die each year from preventable causes—this being one of them. There are almost 300,000 women who die every year from pregnancy and birth-related causes, and 80 percent could be preventable and treatable. Meaning, we could do something about it right now—changing a life and death situation—for pennies to the dollar. We should be talking about these stories, because these women and these children do matter. They're God's children just like all of us.
The second point is—not that we have solved HIV/AIDS—but now, as HIV/AIDS is being addressed and on a bit of a denouement, we are turning our attention beyond just infectious disease to look at the larger picture of global health issues. We are asking the question, "How can we save the lives of millions who are living on less than $1 a day?" And the greatest issue we have found is the healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies issue. This issue touches on so many other issues. If you can keep mom and baby healthy and keep families intact as a strong nucleus of a family, you can combat extreme poverty. You can keep these kids in school when there are two kids instead of six or eight, and you can keep these younger women in school because they're not getting pregnant at too early of an age. You can promote maternal health and child health, and you can prevent HIV/AIDs transmission from mother to child. In conquering this one issue, you are hitting on a lot of the other millennium development goals and other global health challenges, which really ripple out and affect not just the families but also the communities and the societies and eventually the nation in terms of economic stability. So, we have found this issue is a linchpin for global health.
In light of all of this, we all need to come in and rethink healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies as a central part of global health.
It seems that if someone says he is "pro-life," then it only makes sense for him to be behind the healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.
Exactly! Do you want to prevent close to 50 million abortions in the next few years? This is the way to do it. We can really combat abortions by the millions by implementing healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies. We can really unite in this aspect.
You mentioned hearing the stories of these women and children. We understand "Hope Through Healing Hands" has just released a book called The Mother and Child Project.
Yes! We are so excited to partner with Zondervan to publish this book. It is a collection of essays, and each section is driven by one or two stories of women from every continent around the world. Their stories are focused on their anecdotal experience with how healthy timing and spacing of children has changed/influenced/impacted their lives in some way. There are stories, photos, and about 46 authors from both faith-based and non-faith-based communities talking about why they are putting their support behind these issues and why they find it critical to step up and take leadership at this time. This really is an exciting book, and it's just out! There is also a study guide so folks can read pieces of the book together over a four-week period.
With all the work you have done and all the places you have been, what is one thing you wish the church would know about caring for the poor?
I think that the bulk of my work over the last 12-13 years has been trying to get the church to pay attention to the world's poorest, if you will. And, yeah, I have a PhD in religion and multiple degrees in theology and critical theories of religion and whatever—but it really just boils down to loving your neighbor. And that's really pretty simple. And in this increasingly globalized world, Southeast Asia is our neighbor, and Central America is our neighbor, and if we are calling ourselves Christians we are called to support the poorest of the poor. This is the drive of our Scriptures, and it is really the call—to me—of Jesus. It is absolutely central to living a Christian life. Part of that means promoting awareness and making sure other Christians understand statistics and lifestyles of people around the world who don't have the luxury of living here in the US. We have problems and poverty in the US, certainly, but it's not the same as in other parts of the world. It is important that other stories are told, and it's important that we listen to the voices of others. In terms of advocacy, this is absolutely central to me—to continue to work together to share this news.
Learn more about how to speak to your representative about continuing funding for protecting and increasing US governmental funding for maternal, newborn, and child health, and international family planning.
Jennifer Carpenter is a construction site of grace, Palmer Theological seminary student, Sider Scholar, musician, baker, solution-seeker, and investigator of good stories. She sporadically tweets @jcsongwriter.