Watch CBSN Live

Mira Sorvino speaks up for women's health worldwide

For millions of women worldwide, the miracle of childbirth is fraught with serious health consequences. In some countries, having babies is frequently life-threatening because there isn't sufficient access to basic health care.

The statistics are staggering. According to EngenderHealth, a global women's health organization, a woman dies every 90 seconds somewhere in the world from pregnancy or childbirth. Maternity-related complications are the leading cause of death in women ages 15 to 19 worldwide. However, if appropriate gynecologic and maternal health care were provided, as many as 90 percent of these deaths could be prevented.

Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino, a mother of four, knows about some of the risks firsthand. While pregnant with her third child, Sorvino was diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition in which the baby's placenta covers the opening of the cervix; it is the leading cause of pregnancy hemorrhaging.

"It was a very frightening time, and I had excellent health care," Sorvino told CBS News. She and the baby made it through with no long-term health consequences. "But had I not had that care, I probably would have delivered at 22 weeks and my baby might have died and I could have died from hemorrhage. It was all a crazy situation, a very crazy, frightening sobering situation for me," she said.

Sorvino's own experience inspired her to advocate for women worldwide whose health, and that of their unborn children, is in jeopardy because they don't have access to basic medical care. "To just imagine being in a complicated pregnancy somewhere where you had no health care and you had no one in your village who was an ob/gyn, and you didn't even have a trained midwife, and many of the women across the world are living in those situations exactly," said Sorvino, a spokesperson for EngenderHealth. "When they're pregnant they don't have proper prenatal care -- there's no one there to do it."

Pamela Barnes, president and CEO of EngenderHealth, says the first step for improving the mortality rates for underprivileged women and babies is to provide access to contraceptives, so women have more control over the number and timing of children they have. Doing so could reduce maternal death rates by as much as 30 percent and infant mortality rates by 40 percent, the group says. Many complications could be avoided if younger women could delay the age of first childbirth until their bodies were more mature.

The 70-year-old health organization seeks to fulfill the needs of 222 million women and girls in developing countries who want to delay or prevent pregnancy and do not have access to contraceptives and family planning information services. "If a woman can improve her health, she can improve the health of her children and her family," Barnes told CBS News.

Barnes says her organization helps communities by providing local health care workers with the education, resources and supplies they need to take care of women, young girls and children. EngenderHealth works in countries around the world, in places as far flung as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

"Our focus is on training the health care workers and making sure the supplies are on the ground," said Barnes. "When I was in Ethiopia, I met a woman who was a second year college student in Addis Abba. She told me she wasn't aware that she could use an IUD and she was excited that she could have access and not have to go back constantly to the health clinic."

View CBS News In