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Have We Come A Long Way Baby? Assaults on Reproductive Rights and The Impact on Women’s Sports

(By Zach Draves)

Nina Simone’s classic Mississippi Goddman began with “Alabama got me so upset” and given the recent anti-abortion law that was passed in that state, upset would be a gross understatement. The law prohibits abortion even in the cases of rape and incest. The only exceptions included were if the mother’s life was in serious jeopardy. Furthermore, any doctor that performs an abortion is subjected to a 99 year prison sentence. We need to call it for what it is, a desperate attempt by lawmakers to dismantle the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973 that declared that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion and to establish the basic principle that women are able to control their own bodies. One can certainly anticipate the effect this and laws passed in other states such as Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri will have on the lives of women going forward, but what should also be addressed is how these measures will damage the ability of women and girls to participate in sports. There is not much empirical research available to solidify that claim, but there is a discussion to be had and data to be collected.

The renowned sports sociologist and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards who was the chief organizer behind the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967 that culminated in the legendary protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City has been at the forefront of leading a much needed conversation about the impact of rolling back reproductive rights on women’s sports. According to Dr. Edwards, states like Texas and North Carolina has seen a decrease in women’s participation in sports at the same that that anti-abortion laws were passed and reproductive health clinics began to close down. That is not a coincidence. When looking at history, we often talk about the clear impact Title IX has had, but we don’t talk enough about Roe v. Wade. Essentially, the Supreme Courts’ decision gave colleges/universities the confidence that they could give young women athletic scholarships and ensure that she would be available to fully participate throughout their respective athletic seasons without inference. In other words, when women are given access to health care and sports, they become active functioning members of society. In a scenario where a female athlete finds out she is pregnant, but can’t carry the child for academic, financial, and athletic reasons and learns that she has no access to clinics or abortion service providers, her future is compromised. Or if she does carry the child to term, but has no access to affordable child care or her university won’t make arrangements for her to take classes and be at practice at reasonable times, her future is compromised. So if we put this in full context in the present time, reproductive rights are being stripped, Title IX is under siege, we don’t have a national system of child care compared to the rest of the industrialized world, and organizations like Planned Parenthood are being defunded, we will see a sharp decrease in women receive athletic and academic scholarships, women who are survivors of sexual assault being robbed of safeguards and protections. We could see an overall negative impact on women’s participation in sports.  

If there is any good to take away from this, it is that women and men of good will and conscious who are standing up to these laws. The outcry is palpable and the need to do something is urgent. The other good news is that there are organizations and institutions that need our help and our support. A good way for us to show we care is to attend a WNBA game this year and give to their Take a Seat Take a Stand campaign launched last season. The goal is for $5 from each ticket purchased to be given to a cause that advocates for gender equality and social justice. Planned Parenthood is among the groups listed as receiving those contributions. Another thing we can do is to encourage more men and boys to stand up and support women and girls in this fight. This cannot be a burden that women have to carry alone. The fight against sexism, misogyny, and policing of women’s bodies requires us all, especially those with privilege, to step up. When we achieve true equity and fairness, we can then say we have come a long way baby.

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