Growing up in what was then communist Czechoslovakia, Martina Navratilova had many freedoms that she did not have access to. But one thing she did was reproductive health care, including abortion.
When she came to the United States, American women had only recently been granted reproductive autonomy for about a decade.
“Women were in control of their bodies [in Czechoslovakia], so it was a bit of a shock to come here,” Navratilova said. “I thought this was a free country.”
Earlier this week, Politico was leaked a draft Supreme Court decision ruling Roe v. Wade, repealing the decision that gave American women access to abortion, sending shockwaves across the country. The ramifications of such a choice would be far-reaching for generations who have taken this ability to be in control of their bodies for granted, particularly those who play sports.
“How many athletes have had abortions? Many, many, many,” Navratilova said. “Because it’s about autonomy over your body. It’s about making a choice. Are you traveling to another country now? Do you still compete? Pregnancy changes your body and for an athlete, performance is about precision.”
So inevitable is the overturning of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade has been since a Conservative majority prevailed under President Donald Trump, it’s no less disappointing to see it play out in slow motion.
Many of the freedoms that modern women were first to enjoy stem from the idea that they could be in charge of our own bodies. Although the case was specifically about abortion, Roe’s reality had more to do with reproductive autonomy.
“Using your body for power and pleasure, rather than the power of someone else’s pleasure, is inherently radical,” said Victoria Jackson, Arizona State’s assistant clinical professor of history.
Roe was enacted in 1973, a year after Title IX banned sex discrimination in schools or other educational programs funded by the federal government.
became law. The birth control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, had 10 million users by 1973, according to a PBS documentary on birth control methods and traditions dating back to the Bible.
Up until the early 1970s, so many of the most popular women’s sports were for little ones, like gymnastics and figure skating. Even tennis players retired in their 20s, as pregnancy usually spelled the end of an athletic career on every front, and often the end of a career outside the home.
It’s hard to remember, but back in the 1970s, fathers and husbands still had to co-sign a woman’s credit card application, and spousal rape was legal. Nebraska was the first state to ban it in 1975.
“Mid-century women in sports ended their careers when they were expected to have children,” Jackson said.
Young women were rarely encouraged to exercise, let alone run. Doctors even advised women against distance running because they feared their uterus would actually fall off their bodies. These primitive, limited notions of what the female body could do beyond birth persisted for decades.
Such artificial limitations become more and more false the longer women play sports, and Jackson said that women have been held back by the way men’s bodies are understood, not the way their own bodies work, suggesting a revolution in endurance sports.
Only recently have we seen women in their late 30s and mothers breaking marathon distance records. In January, Keira D’Amato broke the US marathon record with a time of 2:19:12. She is 37, has two children and has not walked in 8 years. On the same day in January, 38-year-old mother Sara Hall broke the American record for the half marathon by running 1:07:15.
Only by giving women choices about when to have family and when to play have we even begun to understand what women’s bodies are capable of. Serena and Venus Williams entered the professional tennis environment when teenagers were still thriving and they now compete into their late 30’s and early 40’s.
Women making decisions about their own bodies was at the core of what Roe represented, and ultimately that meant people could privately choose to terminate a pregnancy, use birth control to prevent pregnancy, or regulate their periods , or even lead a more proactive family planning when it comes to adoption, surrogacy, or egg freezing.
Reproductive freedom is not limited to terminating an unwanted pregnancy, although that is a crucial part. With Title IX and reproductive freedom at the same time, this heralded a golden era for women’s sports.
After decades of cutting and pasting the language of men’s league collective bargaining agreements, in 2019 the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association completely rethought what an employment contract could be for women who became pregnant and wanted their children, or wanted to preserve their parenting skills with technology. And all of this starts with the idea that it is a woman who decides and the time in the early 1970’s when Title IX and reproductive choices came along.
“She continues to be the focus,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State. “Part of the demand that women’s sport makes for resources is wrapped up in the idea of autonomy. Whether it’s menstruation or mental health, women don’t need to defend themselves and their bodies.
“It’s the ability to say the boldness and the responsibility that we have responsibility for these decisions,” Davis said.
Roe’s upcoming reversal won’t end the careers of professional women overnight. But the reversal, along with rollbacks when it comes to voting rights or LGBTQ acceptance, the language of criminalizing protest (see Trump’s statement describing a tomato as a deadly weapon) or the brutal police practices when it comes to communities of color will have a cumulative effect.
These rights are linked and can be revoked. And it could mean that private, individual choices send women home rather than out into the world. There are those who would criminalize the choices made by women who misunderstand the workings of the female body or view contraception as another target.
What is happening with Roe should make generations who grew up with certain freedoms aware that those rights can also be taken away.
“Part of what’s happened in the last 50 years,” Davis said, “the foundation that had cracks wasn’t reinforced.”
And in all likelihood, our children will begin to enjoy fewer rights than we had.
“Once you’ve won the fight, you don’t think you have to keep fighting,” Navratilova said, “but you do.”