Hillary Clinton: ‘The Press Has Never Taken Reproductive Health Seriously’
The unspoken secret in America—a country that lives to zoom in on celeb baby bumps, sustains entire industries that make their dollars telling moms to do better, and fiercely debates the rights of fetuses—is that we have the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy nation in the world. In 2017, American women were more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth, or in the immediate aftermath of birth than women in Qatar and Kazakhstan. The statistics exist at the exact intersection of unbearable and infuriating—one-third of those deaths, a hugely disproportionate number, are African-American women. Of the deaths that occurred between 2011 and 2015, the CDC found that at least 60% could have been prevented.
“It’s not at all complicated,” Hillary Clinton tells Glamour, speaking from a local clinic in Puerto Rico where the Clinton Foundation has partnered to help local midwives bring aid to pregnant women and new mothers. “We’re not getting adequate medical care for prenatal exams and treatment for birth and delivery, and as a result there are many places in the United States that have a third-world rate of maternal mortality.” Texas—the state with the highest uninsured population—has some of the highest rates of death for pregnant women and new mothers, she explains. “We should be treating it like the health emergency that it is.”
In a phone interview, the former Secretary of State didn’t mince words, managing to communicate a series of unerringly polite, acerbic takedowns: of the way the press treats abortion rights, of climate change deniers and women’s health crisis skeptics, and, most vigorously, of anyone who’s considering giving up hope. Clinton, a 72-year-old whose life has been a curious mix of exhilarating firsts and crushing defeats, made this much clear—your despair makes the people in power’s jobs easier. Now is no time to give up.
Clinton with an infant who received services from Centro MAM
Puerto Rico, which President Trump said received “too much aid” after the U.S. territory was devastated by hurricanes, is an area of focus for the Clinton Global Initiative. Its efforts there involve partnerships with over 700 organizations to help the island recover from disaster while preparing for the inevitable destruction that future storms will bring. The partnerships range from strategizing sustainable disaster relief fundraising to facilitating the training of public school teachers to ensuring that disaster relief workers get access to quality mental health care.
When I spoke to Clinton, she was leaving a maternal community center, Mujeres Ayudando Madres (Centro MAM), or Women Assisting Mothers, which provides free services to pregnant women and new mothers. Another local, woman-volunteer-led group, Solar Libre, had installed a solar generator at Centro MAM, creating an emissions-free source of energy that can be quickly removed and preserved in the event of another hurricane. Paola Pagán Berrios, the field manager for Solar Libre, says she spent five months without electricity after Hurricane Maria, even though she doesn’t live in a rural area. The women-dominated apprenticeships run by Solar Libre “bring renewables into the island and also create more resiliency,” she says, “while decentralizing the production of electricity and giving people in the communities power and independence.”
Solar-powered midwives has big “this is the future liberals want” energy. It’s also pretty functional. “They’re taking care of women at our most vulnerable, namely pregnant and giving birth, and they’re also doing their part against climate change,” Clinton says of the two nonprofits.
Forever associated with pantsuits, hard choices, and some questionable soundbites, Clinton is sometimes labeled an old-school feminist. But she proudly says that the work she’s doing here is an example of intersectional feminism, the framework coined by theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how systems of discrimination link. “I am just absolutely convinced that you can’t talk about maternal mortality in the United States without talking about inequality and access to health care, unaffordability of health care, prejudice, racism, anti-immigrant attitudes,” Clinton says. “The more you work on issues like women’s rights, like climate change, like inequality, like economic justice, you can’t help but see how they intersect, how there is overlap. When you’re talking about trying to provide quality health care to expectant moms in Texas, you immediately run into racism and prejudice against immigrants and migrants.”
Motherhood and climate change feel intimately linked even for women who are fortunate enough to not yet feel the daily effects of climate change. For many millennial and Gen-Z women, the idea of bringing children onto an increasingly unlivable planet feels terrifying, or even inhumane. I float this idea past Clinton, who responds to it in much the same fashion as my own mother—not favorably.
Clinton with Yarilís Garcia, Yaschira Centeno, Ashlee Correa, and Vanessa Caldari, Centro MAM midwives, beneficiaries, and the center’s founder, respectively
“I would first of all say that’s a highly personal choice,” she responds, but she adds, “I think children give you a perspective on the future that gets you more activated.” Moms are the very best advocates, she points out. “We need young, smart moms to be the voices that speak out, and force political and business leaders to take action on climate change. I hope that more young moms will get on the front lines speaking out and voting for leaders who will do something, finally, about climate change.”
But it’s hard to be hopeful—certainly to be so zanily optimistic that you think more people should be alive right now—while women disappear one by one from the Democratic primary stage, as if the election is a terrible murder-mystery dinner party. As women and people of color exit the race, candidates are speaking less about women’s health and reproductive rights than ever. “You know, the press has never taken reproductive health seriously,” Clinton says. “And I know that from my own races—they don’t raise it, they don’t understand its importance. We have to do a better job of speaking up and educating people about why this is a critical issue for women.”
The reality that Hillary Clinton is planning, determinedly and unglamorously, for the future, that Hillary Clinton is ready to hold the media accountable for dismissing women’s rights, that Hillary Clinton is advocating for newborn babies at hurricane-ravaged clinics, that Hillary Clinton is strategizing on the issue of humanitarian-worker burnout—is so confusing. Didn’t Hillary Clinton lose? Doesn’t she have some fancy luncheon to be at? Isn’t she tired of being defeated?
“I believe that it’s never the wrong time to stand up and use your voice on behalf of yourself and other people,” she says. “You may not always be successful, but you might move the process a little bit forward. And that will have an impact on people and their lives.” It’s odd to see Hillary Clinton’s life, with its giant moments of achievement and humiliation watched by the world like an Olympic event or a Super Bowl, the way she might see it—as tiny, incremental changes that are the result of unending work.
“I think at the very least you have to vote,” she says. “Don’t ever, ever, ever give up on your vote.” Clinton says that since her election loss in 2016, young women have regularly come up to her to tell her they’re sorry they didn’t vote, because they thought she didn’t need their vote to win. Her fundamental refusal to go away after 2016—an insistence that has taken the form of a book, an upcoming Hulu docu-series, and regularly viral comments about the presidential election—inspire fury, even in some of her longtime fans. She seems not bothered by this.
Clinton with client families and workers at Centro MAM
“I know from my long experience in trying to make change and help people that you can never give up, you can never give in,” she says. “Right now we have people in power in our country who want to discourage you; they want to depress you. They want to convince you that it’s not possible to stand up against the combined power of a president and the people who support him and the businesses who are profiting off of him and his policies. And I just don’t believe that.”
Making your way through a world in which some believe fetuses are human even as they ignore the death rates of real, live women is depressing. It is discouraging. Same with living—and bringing life into—a world where the climate is out of control, and the government won’t address it. It would be nice to just lie down. That’s exactly what powerful people want, Clinton says. They want you to feel powerless. That’s how they win.
She has to go—she has a session about preventing violence in the wake of climate catastrophe, she has more meetings with solar energy groups, she has plans to talk more about the intersection of climate change and gender equality.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” she says, which feels like an amazing understatement. “If you’ve got the energy and the time in busy lives like the ones we have, then get involved with groups and organizations that stand for what you believe in.” (She recommends Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters.)
“At the very least,” she says again, sounding hopeful, and not the least bit tired. “Vote.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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