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On Wednesday, December 1, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in a case assessing a Mississippi law that makes almost all abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
More than 500 athletes across a range of sports, including running, filed an amicus brief in the case, voicing their support of the right to abortion. They include 26 Olympians, 73 professional athletes, and 276 intercollegiate athletes. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, and Athletes for Impact also signed on as organizations. All say they have exercised, relied on, or support the constitutional right to abortion.
The athletes say in their brief: “Amici believe that, like themselves, the next generation of women athletes must be guaranteed bodily integrity and decisional autonomy in order to fully and equally participate in sports.”
The outcome of this case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, may have broad implications for women both inside and outside of Mississippi.
The case tests the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which protect the right to abortion before the fetus can survive outside the womb, generally considered to be around 23 weeks. In this case, Mississippi is asking the Supreme Court to overturn both decisions. The Court will decide whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.
Abortion Rights and Women’s Sports
In sports, lack of access to abortion care can end an individual athlete’s career and cut off access to college, and it may also hinder girls’ and women’s participation in sports more broadly.
“Roe and Casey strengthen the practical impact of legislative guarantees of gender equality, like Title IX,” the athletes argue in their brief. “Without Roe’s constitutional protection of women’s bodily integrity and decisional autonomy, women would not have been able to take advantage of Title IX and achieve the tremendous level of athletic participation and success that they enjoy today.”
Restricting access to abortion care would deprive girls and women “of the multitude of collateral benefits that result from athletic participation, including greater educational success, career advancement, enhanced self-esteem, and improved health,” the brief says. The brief notes that, although it uses the terms “women” and “female,” people of all gender identities can become pregnant. “Accordingly, Amici are current and former athletes who are, or were at some point, able to become pregnant—regardless of gender identity.”
“Female athletes are a kind of sisterhood,” said Alyssa Godesky, a professional triathlete and ultra runner, as well as a coach, who signed on to the brief. She told Women’s Running, “Even if this doesn’t affect me directly, I know it affects someone that’s just one degree from me. And it’s important to me that each woman out there that I’m competing against, and that wants to have an athletic life, has control over the choices which regulate their body and therefore their career.”
The Mississippi law was enacted in 2018, but a legal challenge blocked it from going into effect. Several other states have enacted abortion restrictions this year. A Texas law that took effect in September is the most restrictive. It bans abortion after about 6 weeks, and it allows private citizens to enforce the law by suing anyone who helps a woman get an abortion that violates it.
Because reproductive health care is part of overall health care, these abortion restrictions have raised issues of bodily autonomy and access to necessary medical care.
“Abortion is just another aspect of health care, particularly women’s health care, that allows us to care for our bodies and care for ourselves in the way in which we see fit,” said Leeja Carter, a sports psychologist and former collegiate track and field athlete who signed on to the brief. Limiting access to this care affects women’s mental health and well-being, “but also the ways in which we feel and see our community, our society, our world being there for us, particularly as women,” she told Women’s Running.
The Right to Choose and Running
In the realm of women’s running, this case emerges at a time when several high-profile runners have raised issues of abusive treatment, lack of decision-making autonomy over their bodies, and restrictive maternity policies. They include Mary Cain speaking up about mental and physical abuse, and Allyson Felix, Alysia Montaño, and Kara Goucher shining light on how Nike treated them during and after their pregnancies. These are different problems, but all fall under the umbrella of women’s health care and bodily autonomy.
“The running community is still dominated by men—cisgender men,” Carter said. Even the most well-intentioned man cannot fully know the lived experiences and nuanced needs of women and gender non-conforming people, “particularly when it comes to their bodies, when it comes to pregnancy, and reproduction,” she said.
Women should be the ones to decide when to devote their bodies to pregnancy and sports, the athletes argue in their brief. “Amici are united in their belief that the physical tolls of forced pregnancy and childbirth would undermine athletes’ ability to actualize their full human potential.”
These issues are heightened for women who become pregnant from sexual violence, the athletes point out. “If forced to carry their rapist’s child to term, these women … would be re-traumatized by the repeated deprivation of control over their bodies—not only by their assailant, but also by the government. This intrusion can be acutely devastating for an athlete, given that control over her body is inextricably linked to her identity, career, and educational pursuits,” the brief says.
As part of the brief, one Division I track and field athlete recalled that many female teammates had shared their experiences of sexual assault and rape with her. “If they were unable to access a safe and legal abortion after experiencing rape and were forced to carry a child to term, the burden would have been unbearable,” she wrote.
The ways girls and women benefit from sports are numerous and well documented, and their participation may even strengthen economies, the brief notes. But these benefits hang in the balance if restrictive laws limit the decisions girls and women can make about their bodies.
“If Roe v. Wade starts getting rolled back, it sends a very clear message to girls that you don’t have the autonomy over your body to make decisions as an adult,” Godesky said. “And that might affect a young woman’s choice to pursue sports, which is really sad, because I know that sports have given me so much … it’s where I find I’ve gained the most confidence that I’ve taken into other aspects of my life.”