Birth Controlling?

Madeline O'Meara, Sports Editor

When I first heard a rumor that members of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team — last year’s NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Champions — are required to be on birth control, I was infuriated and confused.

How could a university mandate that its players be on birth control, a medication that represents such a personal choice? What purpose does this have? Is it to prevent the players, a huge “investment” for Northwestern, from getting pregnant? Is it so that coaches can know where players are in their menstrual cycles? What possible reason could there be for coaches to have that much control over their athletes’ lives, and, more alarmingly, their sex lives and reproductive choices?

Some proponents of birth control have argued that regulating estrogen levels prevents some of the negative effects of a menstrual cycle, such as fatigue or a decreased ability to handle physical stress, which could potentially affect a female athlete’s performance. However, a recent study by the Institute of Sport Pedagogy and Coaching Sciences at the University of Tartu has shown that birth control has no significant effect on strength or endurance of female rowers.

I turned to the Internet in the hopes that it would shed light on Northwestern’s Brave New World-esque pill policy. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, I could not find a shred of information to verify whether or not the Northwestern policy is anything more than rumor. However, I did come across a host of articles celebrating the empowerment that birth control affords female athletes.

In 2007, Kim St. Pierre, a goalkeeper for Team Canada’s women’s ice hockey team who has helped lead the team to win the last three gold medals at the winter Olympics, became a spokeswoman for NuvaRing, a company that markets and sells birth control. She cited the high-stress environment and hectic scheduling of professional athletics as factors affecting her decision to bring more public attention to different forms of contraception, noting, “There are options out there for us that will work for all women and we should be talking about them.”

With this public support, St. Pierre made her sport a priority over starting a family, a notion that seems controversial because of its rarity; serious career options in athletics are rare for women, and when they are available, female athletes are not celebrated in the same way or as much as male athletes. It seems more logical that a woman would delay starting a family if she were a CEO, but St. Pierre’s endorsement of NuvaRing made me realize that the ability to compete at any level, college or Olympic, may be important enough for a female athlete to also make this decision.

The women’s rights movement and the history of women in athletics are intimately intertwined. The two share a multifaceted history, with the passage of Title IX in 1972 occurring during the heyday of the women’s rights movement. Women’s athletics are a prime example of female empowerment, evidenced by the ad campaigns of countless athletic companies — most notably Nike — that cater to the idea of recognizing women’s athletic achievements, praising strong, muscular bodies that are no longer reserved just for men.

And while I definitely feel empowered by St. Pierre’s endorsement, as an Oberlin College athlete I don’t think I could ever endorse mandatory birth control for women on an athletic team. Participating in college athletics is meant to teach women to appreciate their bodies, not take away the power of choice in their reproductive freedoms. Essentially preventing women from making their own decisions about what they want to do with their bodies is dangerous, whether it’s enforced by the Northwestern women’s lacrosse coach or House Speaker John Boehner.