Opinion: Here's the crushing impact overturning Roe v. Wade could have on female athletes

·4 min read

The battle over Roe vs. Wade is about more than abortion rights. Women’s opportunities to play sports, and the gains in equality that have resulted, are also at stake.

Nearly 50 years later, it is impossible to separate the rights protected by Roe from the opportunities afforded by Title IX. If not for the 1973 Supreme Court ruling recognizing a woman’s right to decide when or if to have children, the law implemented the previous summer requiring gender equity in athletics and education would be hollow.

A college athletic scholarship is meaningless if a woman can’t accept it because of an unplanned pregnancy or one resulting from rape. The decisions a female professional athlete makes about how and when to train are irrelevant if she knows she can’t make other decisions about her own body. The small window an Olympian has can be slammed shut if health care decisions are taken out of her hands.

And it’s all on the verge of being unraveled.

“As women athletes and people in sports, we must have the power to make important decisions about our own bodies and exert control over our reproductive lives,” said Megan Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold and bronze medalist.

The possibility they won’t is so alarming that Rapinoe and more than 500 other current and former athletes, including U.S. women’s soccer captain Becky Sauerbrunn; five-time Olympic gold medalists Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird; and Ashleigh Johnson, a two-time Olympic champion in water polo, filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court Monday in the Mississippi case that could overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Activists supporting legal access to abortion protest outside the Supreme Court in April 2020.
Activists supporting legal access to abortion protest outside the Supreme Court in April 2020.

The players associations for the WNBA and the NWSL joined the brief.

“The stakes could not be higher here,” Joanna Wright, the lead attorney for the women submitting the brief, told USA TODAY Sports.

“If Roe is weakened or overturned … that’s a dire situation for all women, and with respect to the brave amici, they are attesting to the equally grave impact that would have on women’s sports and young women’s ability to compete at top of their game,” Wright said. “Continued protection of this fundamental right is crucial to the continued success of women in sports but also in all areas of life.”

Athletes speak out: More than 500 female athletes call on Supreme Court to rebuff Mississippi abortion law

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Dec. 1 on the challenge to the Mississippi law, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks. If the law is upheld, it could make all pre-viability bans legal, effectively ending access to abortion in about half the country.

The girls and women who play sports might not know what it’s like to not be allowed to make the most fundamental decisions about their own health and well-being.

But they know what they’ve gotten from sports, and they have no wish to see that curtailed.

“Denying an athlete control over her body could jeopardize her competitive career and violates Roe and Casey’s basic guarantee that the ‘destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society,’” the brief reads, referring to Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, another Supreme Court case that upheld abortion rights in 1992.

Megan Rapinoe, left, and Sue Bird are among the hundreds of athletes who signed on to an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to reject a Mississippi abortion law.
Megan Rapinoe, left, and Sue Bird are among the hundreds of athletes who signed on to an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to reject a Mississippi abortion law.

Or as one unnamed soccer player and Olympian said in the brief, “All the decisions I have made, the sacrifices I have made, and the time I have spent mastering my craft have been in the pursuit of excellence. I have honed my body and my mind through my efforts.

“To have any of that autonomy taken away, to have someone else make decisions for my body and my career, is to take away my life’s pursuit.”

Many of the strides women have made are directly attributable to the skills and confidence we developed by participating in sports. Playing sports taught us to be leaders and showed us that being assertive was a good thing. Playing sports encouraged us to be strong and pursue our dreams.

We might not have been thinking about college scholarships, better jobs and Olympic gold medals when we started playing sports. But that’s what resulted – and then some.

What has too often gone unsaid is that access to abortion makes this possible. Whether we find ourselves in need of the procedure or not, we have known it is there, and that knowledge has given us the security to live boldly in a way that women 50 years ago could not.

“Others may have made a different decision in that situation, but my decision ultimately allowed me to become an Olympian, a college graduate and a proud mother today,” said Crissy Perham, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming who had an abortion after becoming pregnant despite being on birth control while on an athletic scholarship in college. “That is what I’m fighting for – for everyone to be afforded the freedom to make their own decisions about their bodies.”

Title IX opened endless possibilities for women. But those possibilities would not, and will not, be realized without abortion rights.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court: Female athletes could be hurt if Roe v. Wade overturned