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This Olympic Gold Medalist Is 1 Of 500 Female Athletes Telling SCOTUS To Uphold Reproductive Rights

Abortion rights activists rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Abortion rights activists rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 500 female athletes filed a brief with the Supreme Court this week asking the court to uphold reproductive rights.

The brief relates to Mississippi’s push to overturn a ruling that blocked the state from enforcing a 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. An appeals court blocked the ban, which restricts abortion access earlier than the 24 weeks set by a 1992 Supreme Court decision. The state is also asking the country to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The brief says that “if women were to be deprived of these constitutional guarantees, the consequences for women’s athletics, and for society as a whole would be devastating.”

The list of signatures includes soccer star Megan Rapinoe, basketball great Brittney Griner, and Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Crissy Perham. In the brief, Perham tells her story about terminating a pregnancy as a teenager after her birth control failed.

At age 19, Perham was a sophomore at the University of Arizona and engaged. Over Christmas break, she found out she was pregnant.

“Even though I was engaged and wanted to have a family with this person I was marrying,” she says, “I knew that it wasn’t the right time for me.”

Perham struggled through her first year of college and continued to face challenges in her second year. Knowing Roe v. Wade gave her the right to have an abortion, she says she decided to terminate the pregnancy — which gave her a second chance at life.

The decision served as a wake-up call that inspired her to take her studies and swimming more seriously, she says.

The former Olympian went on to win national championships and three medals, including two golds, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Getting an abortion didn’t make her a winner, she says, but the decision led her to work harder and be a better teammate.

The mother of two sons says she feels fortunate that she got to choose to enter parenthood when she was older and more mature.

“From the moment I found out I was pregnant with Alex to the moment he took his first breath, that was a blessing to me,” she says. “And then eight years later, I got to have Ryan by choice.”

Some women remained anonymous in the brief, but Perham didn’t. More than three decades later, she’s confident that she made the right decision for herself all those years ago.

When the brief reached the public, Perham says old friends and teammates reached out to her to show support. She doesn’t feel compelled to justify her decision, but making her private situation public caused her a deal of stress.

By sharing her story, she ripped off a bandaid after years of fearing the wound underneath and realized there isn’t one.

“Not that I’m proud of having an abortion, what I’m proud of is I weighed the pros and cons, I talked to my partner,” she says, “and it’s set me on a path that changed my life for the better.”

The brief makes clear that losing reproductive rights would be devastating for both women’s athletics and for society as a whole, but also for female athletes as individuals.

Women have opportunities for careers in sports today with organizations like the WNBA, but during Perham’s time as a swimmer, she says young girls had a “small window” to make it as an elite athlete.

Female athletes like Perham who signed the brief want to ensure future generations of young women can compete as student-athletes and freely make decisions about whether to keep going in sports, she says.

“If they do want to go on to something and continue their sport, they have that option,” she says. “But if they don’t, they got to compete in the prime of their life — just like the men do.”

The importance of that choice goes far beyond gold medals or the Olympics. The brief notes that opportunities in sport lead to greater educational success, career advancement, enhanced self-esteem and improved health.

When Perham chose to get an abortion, she wasn’t on anyone’s radar to become a national champion or Olympian. This call for reproductive rights is about bodily autonomy and ensuring women athletes can make choices that allow them to compete at their peak, she says.

Perham’s mother played basketball and volleyball in college. Her mother wore the same uniform for both sports, Perham says, and the players had to drive themselves to matches. As a student-athlete decades later, Perham flew to her swim meets and felt supported by her university.

“The women before me made choices and stood up for themselves so that I could have those opportunities,” she says. “And I absolutely feel like it is my job to do the same for the people behind me.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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