TCrissy, an Olympic gold medalist and a former dog walker, was heading to San Antonio to meet her husband when he pulled up in front of her car in order to tell her some very disturbing news. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Crissy Perham, a five-to-one Olympic gold medalist. Roe v. WadeThis would end the constitutional right of an abortion. Her husband’s words landed like a gut punch. Perham was among more than 500 female athletes that filed amicus briefs last September to support their cause. Roe v. Wade. Perham and her fellow athletes wrote that they “are united in their deeply-held belief that women’s athletics could not have reached its current level of participation and success” without that right to end a pregnancy.
Perham is a former U.S. swimming champion who took home two silver medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She shared her personal story with the world for the first time. Perham was a University of Arizona scholarship swimmer. While she was in a monogamous long-term relationship, she used birth control, but she accidentally became pregnant. Perham decided to have an abortive baby. “I wasn’t ready to be a mom, and having an abortion felt like I was given a second chance at life,” Perham wrote. “I was able to take control of my future and refocus my priorities. After improving my schoolwork, I began training hard and won the first national championship that summer. My life would be drastically different if I had been pregnant and forced to sit that race out, because that race changed the course of my life.” A year later, Perham made the Olympic team, as a swimming co-captain.
Now, she sees a terrible hypocrisy in the timing of today’s Supreme Court ruling, coming a day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated equal athletic opportunities for women and girls. Many of the same people cheering for the right of women to play sports didn’t seem to mind them losing a right to control their bodies. “How ridiculous is it that 24 hours ago, they’re praising Title IX and all the opportunities that were created for girls and women that wanted to participate in sports at a higher level and possibly become professional athletes,” Perham tells TIME. “And literally the next day, they said, ‘By the way, if you get pregnant, you’re gonna have to have a baby.’”
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Athletes are now worried that Friday’s Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationTitle IX’s advances could be reversed. The window for women who are active in sports is very narrow. This often occurs when they reach childbearing years. While many athletes have managed to juggle difficult pregnancies, and the physical and financial taxations of motherhood while returning to competitive sports, others couldn’t afford to do so. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards Ross revealed in her memoir that she had an abortion just two weeks prior to flying to Beijing 2008 Olympics. She won the 4X400-meter relay medal. “The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me,” Richards-Ross writes in the book. “In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all.”
The right to an abortion helped level the playing field between women and men: expectant fathers don’t have to undergo nine months of physiological changes, and the physical demands of labor, while pursuing a career in sports. As one soccer player put it in the amicus brief: “Being an elite athlete my entire life, I know what having control over my body feels like. I’ve been putting blood, sweat, and tears into my sport since I was five years old, a sacrifice that I made in order to accomplish my dream of playing at the highest level. After I got sexually active, I understood that having a baby could put my dreams in jeopardy. Thus, accessing an abortion was a safeguard for me should that happen. Knowing I had the right and access to an abortion should I need it made me feel secure in myself as a woman athlete, and allowed me to pursue greatness on and off the field.”
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If enough states ban abortions, fewer women and girls may participate in sports, and less money will be directed toward women’s athletics. In states that have restrictive abortion rights, colleges could lose female athletes. “From where I stand, the future looks bleak,” U.S. water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, tells TIME. Johnson, who also signed the amicus brief, calls today’s decision a “devastating” setback for women’s sports. “It’s really disappointing as someone who went through the collegiate system, played college sports, and is now playing for a professional league,” Johnson says. “It’s just one more barrier. It’s really hard to consider sports this clear pathway for girls to find empowerment and for women to really pursue their dreams if they don’t have these protections.”
Perham, who was an instructor for high school swimming after Barcelona, and has now had two sons in her 20s, gets emotional recalling the ways her life improved following her pregnancy. She says early on in college, her grades were lacking and she didn’t practice consistently in the pool. “I am thankful every day for the last 30 years of my life not because I had an abortion,” she says. “But because I had that opportunity and people gave me a chance to better myself, and I took advantage of that chance.”
“I’m not here to like, be some weird cheerleader for abortion,” says Perham. “It’s not, ‘yay, abortion.’ It’s, ‘Hey, this is my body, and I want the ability to do with it what I choose, which includes being an athlete.’ I never want to sound like I need anybody to think like me. What I would respectfully ask is that you allow someone with a uterus to decide what’s best for them and their uterus. That’s really what it is.”
Learn More: What the Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision Means for Your State
Abortion rights haven’t just allowed elite Olympians like Perham to thrive. They’ve assisted athletes on all levels, and the benefits extend far beyond the field. As one former club lacrosse player wrote in the amicus brief: “Two months into my freshman year, I was raped by a man much older than me. At just 18 years of age, I didn’t know what to think or say. It was difficult for me to find my way through unfamiliar waters and I deeply reacted to being raped. I missed class and lost my grades. I also struggled with my emotions. My PTSD was severe and my suicidal tendencies were extreme. My only hope was Lacrosse. Playing provided me with a sense of relief. I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would have looked like without lacrosse being a safe haven to turn to. For my mental and physical well-being, I would have had to end the rape if I got pregnant. I emotionally and physically depended on lacrosse, and I wouldn’t have been able to handle a pregnancy, school, and my sport at the same time.”
“If I did not have the option to abort, I would have certainly taken my own life.”
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