The tennis superstar revealed her own health scare after having her first child, and is highlighting how US childbirth deaths disproportionately affect black women
“I almost died after giving birth to my daughter, Olympia. Yet I consider myself fortunate.” So began a call-to-arms by Serena Williams, in which the 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion revealed the extent of complications around the birth of her daughter last year, and drew attention to the startling disparity in maternal death numbers between white and black mothers in the US.
In an article for CNN, the 36-year-old explained how her difficulties began after coughing caused by an embolism prompted her caesarean scar to rupture. While in theatre, doctors found a large haematoma in her abdomen, which they prevented from travelling to her lungs.
Williams noted that for others, childbirth can be a death sentence. The ongoing maternal mortality crisis in the US disproportionately affects black women, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noting that they are three to four times more likely than white women to die from complications related to pregnancy. She also discussed similar problems for women giving birth in the world’s poorest countries.
“The statistics are shocking,” says Rebecca Schiller, founder of the charity Birthrights. “It’s absolutely essential that more work is done to discover why these inequalities exist. It must be a priority across all the many areas of maternity services that are being transformed. Policymakers and practitioners must learn from and listen to women of colour – and those who support and care for them – to ensure our maternity services offer equality as well as safety, respect, compassion and dignity.”
In the UK, there are no official figures around maternal death and race, but a report by Charles Anawo Ameh and Nynke van den Broek found evidence to suggest that care given to women from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially asylum seekers and newly arrived refugees, is substandard.
With women facing a one-in-6,900 lifetime risk of maternal death, according to the statistics, women in the UK are more than twice as likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth as those in Poland, Austria or Belarus, according to research, with the UK ranked 30th out of 179 countries on maternal health.
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