But the women have shared one life experience that has recently attracted widespread attention: Both survived potentially fatal pregnancy complications.
On Monday, Beyoncé revealed in Vogue’s September issue that she delivered her twins, Rumi and Sir, in June last year by emergency Caesarean section after being bedridden for a month because of “toxemia,” a condition better known as preeclampsia. The complication causes high blood pressure and can damage organs such as the liver and kidneys, according to the Mayo Clinic. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby.
“My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section,” said the singer, who was also on the cover of the issue. “We spent many weeks in the NICU,” referring to a neonatal intensive care unit. “I was in survival mode and did not grasp it all until months later. Today I have a connection to any parent who has been through such an experience.”
Earlier this year, Williams also told Vogue about how she almost died after delivering her daughter Olympia via emergency C-section. Williams gave birth only a few months after Beyoncé.
The tennis star, who has a history of developing blood clots, suffered a pulmonary embolism, meaning blood clots had blocked one or more of the arteries in her lungs, she wrote in a CNN opinion piece. From there, the problems only worsened. “Intense coughing” caused by the embolism led Williams to rip her C-section wound, and when she went in for surgery, doctors discovered a large hematoma, or swelling of clotted blood, in her abdomen.
“When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed,” Williams wrote.
Williams has continued to be open about her struggles as a mother. On Monday, she took to Instagram to detail her experience with “postpartum emotions.”
By publicly sharing the darker, and often traumatic, sides of their pregnancies, the women have reignited concerns surrounding maternal mortality rates, a trend that is especially high among black mothers, Daniel Grossman, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, told The Washington Post in an email.
“People tend to think about pregnancy as a universally happy experience,” Grossman wrote. “But the reality is that pregnancy is inherently risky, and while some of these risks can be mitigated by good prenatal care, many cannot. Black women face significantly higher risks during pregnancy, and Beyoncé and Serena Williams help to put a very well-known face to these risks.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 700 women in the United States die each year as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. However, data gathered by the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System showed that “considerable racial disparities in pregnancy-related mortality exist” and that black women are three to four times as likely to be at risk of pregnancy-related deaths as white women.
Simply put, black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die of pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes, ProPublica reported.
While the general public may assume that black women have higher risks of complications during pregnancy solely because of factors such as poverty or education, Grossman said that assumption is incorrect.
On social media, many pointed out that Beyoncé and Williams are the latest examples of how dangerous pregnancy complications can affect black women from all backgrounds.
“I think about high profile, multi millionaires who have had complications with pregnancy and postpartum (Serena Williams, Beyoncé) and I’m reminded that the mortality of black mothers doesn’t discriminate at all,” one user wrote on Twitter.
In 2016, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published an analysis of five years’ worth of data, which revealed that black college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were still more likely to suffer serious pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications compared with women of other races or ethnicities who never graduated from high school.
“It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem,” Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told ProPublica in 2017. “You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”
Many studies have shown that racial disparities exist in health care. For example, doctors largely disregard or discount complaints of pain by black patients more frequently than they do for white patients.
A 2011 paper published in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, a peer-reviewed journal, found that “racial/ethnic minorities consistently receive less adequate treatment for acute and chronic pain than non-Hispanic whites, even after controlling for age, gender, and pain intensity.”
Another study in 2016 conducted by researchers from the University of Virginia revealed that white people are more likely than black people to be prescribed strong pain medications for similar ailments. Researchers found that the reason for the disparity largely stemmed from people’s long-held beliefs about biological differences between black and white people. These beliefs are “associated with the perception that black people feel less pain than do white people and with inadequate treatment recommendations for black patients’ pain,” according to the study.
Even Williams, a high-profile athlete, told Vogue that she was not taken seriously when she first alerted hospital staff to the embolism. She said she told a nurse “between gasps” that she needed a CT scan with contrast and a blood thinner, but the nurse thought Williams’s pain medication might have been confusing her.
Despite insisting, Williams said a doctor still performed an ultrasound of her legs, which didn’t reveal anything, before sending her for a CT scan. The scan revealed that there were several small blood clots in her lungs, and soon she was receiving blood-thinning medication on a drip.
“I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!” she recalled.
On Twitter, entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash wrote that there is “something profound and awful” about the fact that famous people such as Williams and Beyoncé had to “fight to have their health concerns taken seriously during pregnancy.”
“Medical gaslighting of expectant mothers, especially black women, is a deadly epidemic,” he wrote.
Grossman said medical professionals are taking more steps to try to better identify risk factors, recognize early signs of complications and treat conditions quickly using the best evidence available. However, he said doctors and nurses have been “slow to acknowledge the role that racism plays in poor outcomes,” which include placing unnecessary barriers to care and making unwarranted assumptions about patients.
“Until we address the problem of racism in the health care system, we will not be able to fully address the problem of maternal mortality among Black women,” he wrote.
Many, including Grossman, have praised Beyoncé and Williams for bringing awareness to the numerous obstacles faced by black mothers and the need for a solution.
“Beyoncé and Serena talking about their pregnancy dangers is gonna save someone,” journalist and activist George M. Johnson tweeted.