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As Title IX is celebrated, female athletes worry about repercussions of Roe v. Wade decision

Distance runner Kara Goucher was among more than 500 female athletes who signed a brief filed with the US Supreme Court regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade.Don Ryan/Associated Press

Susie Petruccelli recalled the emotions of the morning of June 24.

Her daughter walked downstairs and asked “Have you seen the news?”

“I said ‘No,’ but I could tell by the look on her face. My gut just felt sick,” Petruccelli said.

Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion as a constitutional right, had been overturned. The decision put the legality of abortion back into the hands of each state.

“I just started bawling, just started crying, overwhelmed with grief and sadness and fear for all these young women who are going to be faced with this,” Petruccelli said.

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Years ago, Petruccelli was that young woman. After her final soccer season at Harvard, Petruccelli had an abortion.

Amid a national conversation about the way this controversial ruling affects all women, there is particular resonance in the women’s sports community, which only a day earlier celebrated its landmark freedoms on the 50th anniversary of Title IX. For Petruccelli, it reminded her of the brief she signed that was filed with the Supreme Court in September 2021 in support of Roe v. Wade and its benefits to female athletes.

The 32-page document says reproductive freedom gives women the opportunity to participate “fully and equally in athletics.” It includes firsthand vignettes from female athletes who had an abortion during their careers and points to athletes like Kara Goucher, a professional runner who gave birth and later suffered chronic hip injuries from running the Boston Marathon, as examples of how pregnancy and childbirth impact female athletes.

“[Having a child is] such a critical decision for anyone and for any family and particularly athletes. You can’t stop and have a baby unless you’re completely 100 percent ready to do that,” said Petruccelli. “In your athletic career you can’t just take a time out.”

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More than 500 current and former athletes signed the document, including Petruccelli’s former teammate, Kristen Burke.

“High level athletes, that’s their identity: their sport. Even just training in the offseason, all those things are a huge part of their identity,” Burke said. “Now they become isolated if they have no control over these issues.”

Pro-choice rallies have broken out in Boston since the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Some athletes have competed – and won – while pregnant, like Serena Williams at the 2017 Australian Open. Others are outspoken about the implications pregnancy can have on an athletic career, like former professional runner Phoebe Wright, who told the New York Times in 2019 that “getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete.”

How could the Roe decision impact the future of women’s sports? For young athletes in particular, family planning and having a choice is critical, Petruccelli said.

“Most professional athletes at this point are still putting off having kids until their careers are over, or at least putting it off until they’re well established in their career,” she said.

Even athletes who don’t compete at the highest level could face repercussions, said Celeste Kmiotek.

Kmiotek grew up in Townsend and ran competitively for Bishop Guertin High School in New Hampshire. In college, she continued to pursue the sport as a hobby and later joined the Boston Road Runners, a non-competitive running group, before relocating to Washington DC in 2021.

“I can see very clearly a situation where not having had that option could have dramatically changed my life. If I were to have had an unplanned pregnancy and not have had the option of an abortion, running would have been the first thing that would’ve had to go,” Kmiotek said.

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Kmiotek said she enjoyed the mental and physical health benefits that come with participating in a sport.

Other advantages, including career success, are also linked to athletics. A report by the Women’s Sports Foundation said 82 percent of women executives had participated in a sport at some time in their life beyond the elementary school level.

Sara Noonan-Simonds, a former Harvard soccer player, said she signed the brief after reflecting on how being an athlete helped lead her to success professionally.

“I think broadly, it’s an amazing vehicle for growth and development,” Noonan-Simonds said. “I really reflected on the amount of opportunity that I’ve had from being able to be on teams and competing and being an athlete.”

Since Title IX and Roe v. Wade, female participation in high school athletics has increased from less than 500,000 in 1971 to 3.5 million in 2018. The brief argues these two legislations – which focus on gender freedom and equality – worked together to influence this spike.

“Women athletes rely upon their rights to bodily integrity and decisional autonomy to participate in athletics and push their sports forward,” it says.

This increase benefits more than just the women involved; it creates a larger pool of female athletes to represent the country on the Olympic field and supports the economy, the brief continues.

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The reversal of Roe v. Wade could hit marginalized communities the hardest, the women acknowledged.

“I worry about access [and] being able to have the opportunity to play. If someone is pregnant or is not able to have birth control they might not be able to play — period,” Noonan-Simonds said.

Since her time at Harvard, Burke hung up her cleats and traded in her jersey for a briefcase and a career in higher education law. She finished her time as an athlete knowing she had the choice to an abortion if she needed one, but she worries for the future generation who doesn’t.

“I had to try to explain this to my daughter who is an athlete. I hope that she’s a Division 1 athlete at some point and what if she goes to a school in a state that has banned abortion?” Burke thought. “All these things are being stripped away from us after making a lot of progress after so much time. It’s really hard to grasp.”


Jayna Bardahl can be reached at jayna.bardahl@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jaynabardahl.