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Serena Williams’ Scary Childbirth Story Is Part of a Larger Pattern of Discrimination Against Black Moms

As a professional athlete, tennis star Serena Williams thrives in pressure situations. She showed us as much while winning an important semi-final game in last year’s Australian Open

But in life, as in sport, Williams has also shown grace under pressure, and it may have saved her life during her recent childbirth. In a wide-ranging interview with Vogue Magazine, Williams opened up about her complicated childbirth, which featured first a Cesarean section and later a life-threatening blood clot that Williams herself pointed out to doctors — a move that ultimately may have saved her life. 

“I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” Williams reportedly told doctors after they performed an ultrasound. 

“The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs,” Vogue reported. 

In response to the publication of the Vogue story, the nonprofit journalism outlet ProPublica pointed out that while Williams survived to tell her tale, the star could have fallen victim to a phenomenon that seems to affect black mothers at a far higher rate than white ones — maternal mortality. The organization has catalogued maternal mortality statistics in the United States and on Wednesday posted a powerful Twitter thread about the dangers mothers — and especially black mothers — face during childbirth. 

Take Action: Call on African Leaders to Make Women's and Children's Health a Priority.

Black mothers are 243% more likely than white mothers to die from pregnancy or complications related to childbirth in the United States, according to a report from ProPublica and NPR. In the state of New York, according to a related report, black women are three times more likely than white women to die during childbirth. In New York City, maternal mortality rates are 12 times higher for black mothers

The reason? The quality of care black mothers receive in hospitals that serve predominantly black mothers could play a major role. This is often compounded by a lethal combination of embedded racial segregation and unconscious bias. 

“[W]hile part of the disparity can be attributed to factors like poverty and inadequate access to health care, there is growing evidence that points to the quality of care at hospitals where a disproportionate number of black women deliver, which are often in neighborhoods disadvantaged by segregation,” the report found

For example, hospitals that serve high proportions of black mothers saw much higher death rates amongst mothers who suffered from hemorrhages than in primarily white-serving hospitals. In some cases, black women weren’t given blood thinning medicines, which help prevent blood clots, at predominantly black hospitals, while other hospitals make it mandatory to do so. 

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Black mothers dying at high rates in pregnancy is part of a broader trend of rising maternal deaths due to pregnancy in the US. In 2016, an estimated 700 to 900 women, or about 26.4 per 100,000, died from pregnancy-related causes, making it the developed country with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, according to ProPublica. 

In comparison, just 3.8 women for every 100,000 die due to childbirth complications in Finland. 

Worldwide, 99% of all maternal deaths take place in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The high number of maternal deaths in some areas of the world reflects inequities in access to health services, and highlights the gap between rich and poor,” the WHO reports. 

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This brings us back to Williams. After Williams experienced shortness of breath the day after giving birth, she immediately told her doctors about her discomfort and was able to get a CT scan and heparin drip, according to Vogue. She received six straight days of treatment, and was able to take advantage of six weeks of recovery in bed. 

For too many black mothers in the US health care system, and for the 830 women who die from pregnancy-related complications around the world each day, this sort of care is often simply not available. 

“[I]t’s estimated that up to 60% of maternal deaths are preventable,” ProPublic wrote in its Twitter thread. “But one way to prevent them is to talk to and learn from the women who have nearly died from these complications.” 

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, including goal number three, good health and well-being, which calls for countries to reduce global maternal mortality ratio below 70 maternal deaths for every 100,000 childbirths. You can join us and call on world leaders to prioritize maternal and child health here