When Martina Navratilova was growing up in then-communist Czechoslovakia, there were plenty of freedoms she didn’t have access to. But one thing she did was reproductive health care, including abortion.
When she arrived in the United States, American women had only recently been granted reproductive autonomy for about a decade.
“Women had control of their bodies [in Czechoslovakia], so coming here was a bit of a shock,” Navratilova said. “I thought this was a free country.”
Earlier this week, a Supreme Court draft of a decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that granted American women access to abortion, was leaked to Politico, sending shockwaves across the country. The ramifications of such a decision would be widespread for generations that have taken that ability to have control over their bodies for granted, and particularly for 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. Now, do you travel to another country? Do you still compete? Pregnancy changes your body, and for an athlete, performance is about precision.”
As inevitable as the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade has been since a conservative majority took hold under President Donald Trump, it is no less disappointing to see it unfolding in slow motion.
Many of the liberties that modern women have been the first to enjoy, spring from the idea that they could be responsible for our own bodies. Although the point of the case was specifically abortion, the reality of Roe had more to do with reproductive autonomy.
“Using your body for power and pleasure, and not the power of pleasure of others, is inherently radical,” said Arizona State clinical assistant professor of history Victoria Jackson.
Roe was decided in 1973, a year after Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government, became law. The contraceptive pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, had 10 million users in 1973, according to a PBS documentary of birth control methods and traditions dating back to the Bible.
Until the early 1970s, so many of the most popular women’s sports were for the very young, like gymnastics and figure skating. Even tennis players retired in their 20s, and a pregnancy usually meant the end of a competitive athletic career on any front, and often the end of a career outside the home.
It’s hard to remember, but in the 1970s fathers and husbands still had to co-sign on a woman’s credit card application, and marital rape was legal. Nebraska became the first state to outlaw it in 1975.
“Midcentury women in sport, their careers ended when they were expected to start having children,” Jackson said.
Young women were rarely encouraged to play sports, or even run. Doctors actually advised women against distance running for fear their uteruses would actually drop our of their bodies. These primitive ideas of what women’s bodies could do beyond childbirth lingered for decades.
Such artificial limitations are being proven more wrong the longer women play sports, and Jackson said women have been held back by the way men’s bodies are understood, not the way their own bodies perform, pointing to a revolution in endurance sports.
It is only recently that we have seen women in their late 30s, and mothers, break records at marathon distances. In January, Keira D’Amato broke the American marathon record with a time of 2:19:12. She is 37, has two children, and went 8 years without running. That same January day, 38-year-old mother Sara Hall broke the American record for the half marathon by running a 1:07:15.
It is only by letting women choose when to have families and when to play have we even begun to understand what women’s bodies are capable of. Serena and Venus Williams entered a professional tennis environment when teenagers were thriving, and they are now competing into their late 30s and early 40s.
Women making decisions about their own bodies, this was the core of what Roe represented, and ultimately that meant that people could privately decide to end a pregnancy, or take birth control to prevent pregnancy or regulate their periods, or even engage in more proactive family planning when it comes to adoption, surrogacy or freezing eggs.
Reproductive freedom isn’t limited to ending an unintended pregnancy, though that is a crucial part. With Title IX and reproductive freedom coming about the same time, it ushered in a golden era of women’s sports.
After decades of cutting-and-pasting the language of men’s leagues collective bargaining agreements, the WNBA and WNBA Players Association in 2019 completely reimagined what a labor agreement might be for women who became pregnant and wanted their children, or wanted to preserve their ability to parent with technology. And all of this starts with the idea that it is a woman who decides, and the time in the early 1970s when Title IX and reproductive choice came into existence.
“It continues to be at the heart of it,” said Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of History and African-American studies at Penn State. “Part of the demand that women’s sports make for resources is wrapped up in the idea of autonomy. Whether it’s menstruation or mental health, women don’t have to make a defense of themselves or their bodies.
“It’s the ability and the audacity and the responsibility to say we have ownership of these decisions,” Davis said.
The coming reversal of Roe won’t end professional women’s careers overnight. But the reversal, along with rollbacks when it comes to voting rights, or LGBTQ acceptance, the language of criminalizing protest (see Trump’s deposition in which he describes a tomato as a deadly weapon) or the brutal policing practices when it comes to communities of color will have a cumulative effect.
These rights are tied together, and they can be rolled back. And it might mean that private, individual choices send women home rather than out into the world. There are those who would criminalize women’s decisions, who misunderstand the way women’s bodies function, or who look at contraception as another target.
What is happening with Roe should wake up generations who grew up enjoying certain freedoms to the reality that these rights can be taken away as well.
“Part of what happened in the last 50 years,” Davis said, “the foundation that had cracks in it, hasn’t been reinforced.”
And in all likelihood, our children will begin to enjoy fewer rights than we had.
“Once you win the battle you don’t think you have to keep fighting it,” Navratilova said, “but you do.”