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Cheri A. Pies, public health leader who wrote pioneering book on lesbian parenting, dies at 73

Was clinical professor emerita at UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Dr. Cheri A. Pies, who blazed a trail for lesbian mothers and became a national leader in women’s health, died of cancer on July 4, 2023, in Berkeley, California. She was 73.

In the decades before same-sex marriage was legal, Pies’ 1985 book, Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians, was a lifeline for countless lesbians who were eager to become mothers but needed help to navigate the legal and practical issues around adoption, the use of sperm donors, HIV, and other concerns.

“She was absolutely a pioneer, and those of us who came later built on her work,” said G. Dorsey Green, a psychologist and co-author of The Lesbian Parenting Book, published in 2003. ”I would recommend her book to clients. That was when lesbian couples were just starting to think about having children as out lesbians. Cheri started that conversation.”

Pies went on to spend many years as a clinical professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. There, her research examined the social determinants of health and proposed ways of addressing the social and economic inequities that influence birth outcomes and generational health.

She was a beloved teacher and mentor, with a passion for training the next generation of public health researchers and practitioners. Since 2017, Berkeley Public Health has given annual awards in Pies’ honor for the best application of life course theory.

One of Pies’ most important achievements was overseeing the launch and early years of the Best Babies Zone Initiative (BBZ). The program, which eventually spread to nine cities, aimed to reduce infant mortality by fostering collaboration across community sectors, such as economic development, health care, education and child care.

For this and Pies’ other public health work, she received the 2018 Maternal and Child Health Bureau Director’s Award from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Cheri Pies was born in Los Angeles on November 26, 1949, to Morris Pies, a physician, and Doris Naboshek Pies, a nurse. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from UC Berkeley in 1971, and a master’s degree in social work from Boston University in 1976. Pies returned to UC Berkeley and earned a master’s degree in public health in 1985 and her doctorate in public health education in 1993.

Pioneering work with lesbian mothers

As a health educator for Planned Parenthood in the 1970s, Pies initially ran workshops for heterosexual women contemplating motherhood. In 1978, after becoming an adoptive parent with her female partner, Pies decided that she and other lesbians considering motherhood needed more support than what was available, and she retooled her workshops to fill the gap. The book grew out of the workshops.

Lori Dorfman, an adjunct professor of health and social behavior at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said, “Because of Cheri’s work there was a critical mass of people saying ‘Yes, we can have the family we want.‘ There are people walking the earth because of Cheri Pies.”

Jill Rose’s family is among them. Rose, who attended Pies’ workshops in the 1980s, recalls that the group led her to a sperm donor, who resulted in one son and through him, two grandchildren. She considers Pies their honorary godmother.

“My partner and I wanted to have a child, and were trying to figure out how to go about it,” Rose said. “Her group gave us the structure, and knowledge about what steps to take. We didn’t know many people at that point who were doing it, so it was really important to find somebody we could ask questions of.”

Life course theory and Best Babies

Before joining the Berkeley Public Health faculty, Pies worked as director of family, maternal, and child health programs in Contra Costa County. In 2003, she attended a lecture that set her on a new path. The subject was the novel “life course” theory of public health: the concept that intergenerational factors–in addition to genes–convey risks and protections to one’s life from birth through old age.

Soon after the lecture, Pies launched the Life Course Initiative at Contra Costa Health, broadening the focus of the overall program’s work, with a goal to reduce inequities in birth outcomes, improve reproductive potential, and change the health of future generations. She also became a lecturer on life course theory at Berkeley Public Health.

She served in many roles at Berkeley Public Health over the years, mentoring countless students and colleagues. Pies was nationally recognized many times for her contributions to public health and published dozens of papers. She stepped down from teaching in June, 2017.

Mentoring, Pies said in a March 2023 interview, was always the most important aspect of her work.

“For me, mentoring is the pièce de résistance of being a professional,” she said. “I love mentoring my former students, friends and young people in my life.”

Brenda Eskenazi, Berkeley Public Health professor emeritus and director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, said that Pies “was absolutely adored by all of her students.”

“She took care of everybody,” Eskenazi said. “If she was someone’s advisor I never had to worry about that student.”

While at UC Berkeley, Pies was recruited to run the Best Babies Zone Initiative. A hallmark of the project was the inclusion of community members to identify where help was truly needed, and how it should be delivered, rather than the old-style approach of parachuting into a community to offer fixes that might not be welcome.

“There are people doing large-scale policy work around structural racism, trying to change policy and practice,” Pies said in March. “Best Babies Zone is at the other end of the spectrum, going small-scale to make change for people who can’t wait for policy change to happen.”

Cheri Pies is survived by her wife, Melina Linder; sisters Lois Goldberg and Stacy Pies; and a legion of honorary children and grandchildren in families with lesbian and gay parents who were conceived because of her work.