Patchwork abortion laws, outdated school policies leave college athletes with uncertainty

The Supreme Court decision overturning of Roe v. Wade did more than put women’s reproductive rights in jeopardy.

For women athletes, it put their athletic scholarships, careers and livelihoods in jeopardy, too.

“My body is my job,” said Gwen Berry, a two-time Olympian in the hammer throw. “My body is how I’m able to feed my family and provide for others. If I cannot decide what to do with my body, how am I going to compete? How am I going to pay my bills?”

USA TODAY Sports spoke to dozens of current and retired professional athletes, coaches, agents, sports executives and university administrators about the impact not having access to abortion and other reproductive services will have on women’s sports.

At the college level, it is causing a “major panic,” one Power Five coach said. Coaches, athletic administrators and support staff are trying to figure out, often on their own, what is allowed and what isn’t, what they can say and what they can’t, and what they will do if (when) an athlete comes to them and says she needs an abortion.

At the professional level, athletes fear being traded to or drafted by a team in a state determined to strip women of their rights. The opportunities for professional athletes are already scarce, and an unwanted pregnancy could derail someone’s career. Should she take a year off to have a baby, there is no guarantee she’ll ever be able to come back and perform, or earn, at the same level again.

“If people have to choose, I’m sure they’re not going to want to choose to go to places where they don’t have rights to their own bodies,” said Breanna Stewart, a perennial All-Star with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.                               

READ THE FULL STORY: Uncertainty for college women’s coaches, athletic departments after Roe v. Wade’s reversal

READ THE FULL STORY: Women’s professional sports grapple with eroding rights

What happened?

On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe, with a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, ending the constitutional right to an abortion that U.S. women had for the past 50 years. Each state now decides on access to abortion, and many moved quickly to ban it completely.

About one third of U.S. women have lost access to abortion in the two months since the Dobbs decision.

Why would the Dobbs decision affect female athletes?

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and policy organization, women ages 20-24 accounted for 34% of abortions nationwide, the most of any age group. Women ages 18 and 19 accounted for an additional 8% in 2014, the most recent data available.

Studies also have shown 1 in 4 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Do the math, and it’s obvious women athletes have been having — and will continue to have — abortions.

Women ages 18 to 24 also are at an elevated risk for sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“There's just so many other reasons (to need an abortion), whether it's the health of you as the woman who is pregnant or whether it’s the way that your child was conceived, you know, (if it was) without your permission,” said DiJonai Carrington, who played basketball at Stanford and Baylor before being drafted last year by the Connecticut Sun.

“There's just so many different layers to it.”

Roe v. Wade reversal breeds uncertainty for college athletic programs.
Roe v. Wade reversal breeds uncertainty for college athletic programs.

What do sports organizations say?

The WNBA, NWSL and U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee have pledged to help athletes access reproductive healthcare in other states if necessary.

But the larger question is whether the organizations will -- or should -- do business in states with laws that are hostile to women. There already are a handful of WNBA and NWSL teams in states like that, and both leagues are planning to add an additional two teams by 2025.

Portland Thorns and U.S. women's player Crystal Dunn said it would be "out of the question" for her to play in a state where women don't have reproductive rights. But many players won't have that leverage.

Is the NCAA addressing this?

Nope. The NCAA issued a pregnancy handbook in 2008, detailing obligations schools have to pregnant athletes. Athletes who become pregnant can’t lose their scholarship or be retaliated against, for example.

But the handbook has never been updated, and there’s no indication the NCAA plans to update it now. The organization also hasn’t addressed what additional support should be provided to students in states where abortions are no longer allowed.

Many schools have their own policies, but those aren’t much help, either.

The University of Kentucky’s policy, for instance, says a pregnant athlete is to be educated on “all available options,” so she can make “decisions that she believes are in her best interest.” But abortion is now banned in Kentucky, and athletics spokesman Tony Neely said the school “has not made a formal campus communication regarding the Dobbs decision.”

Clemson’s pregnancy policy says an athlete’s privacy “will be respected with strict confidentiality,” and provides resources for both adoption and abortion. Yet South Carolina, where Clemson is located, has a law being appealed that would ban abortion once a heartbeat can be detected, at about six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant.

Will college athletes in states with abortion bans have any options?

It’s not clear yet.

The NCAA has a Student Assistance Fund to help cover unexpected expenses for athletes, which, in theory, could help a student obtain an abortion out of state. But the money is doled out by the individual schools, so each school can decide how it can — and can’t — be spent.

Medical abortion — using the “abortion pill” or Plan C early in pregnancy — accounts for more than 50% of all abortions in the United States. But many states with restrictive abortion laws are targeting those, too.

Are there other repercussions?

So-called “bounty laws” could have a chilling effect on assistant coaches and trainers, often the first people athletes go to when they’re in crisis. Texas and Oklahoma already have these laws, which offer the public at least $10,000 to successfully sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion, and other states are considering them.

“How are you going to get assistant coaches if players come to you and say something and you’re not allowed to help them? I think hiring your staff, that’s going to be your issue,” said Muffet McGraw, the Hall of Fame former women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame. Among professional athletes, there's also a concern that family planning could be at risk.

Besides going after birth control, some states are considering adopting new laws related to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and fertility planning. Some female athletes who have been open about medical procedures, such as freezing their eggs, wonder if family planning procedures will even be legal in the future.

"I think about it every day,” Berry, who trains in Nashville while pursuing her master’s in public health at Tennessee State, said of the ramifications of the Dobbs decision. “You are forcing me to make a decision that will change my life forever.

”It feels like we’re not even part of the conversation.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion rights changes leave college athletes with uncertainty