Brianna McNeal and Sanya Richards-Ross are among female athletes speaking up about abortions carried out for the sake of their careers, which they say left them “traumatised”
They are pointing to a devastating abortion culture at the heart of professional athletics. United States hurdler Brianna NcNeal spoke out about how she was left “traumatised” and “shaken” after an abortion in January 2020, which led to her missing a drugs test.
Jamaican-American Sanya Richards-Ross has also opened up about how she underwent an abortion in 2008 before boarding a flight the very next day to compete in the Beijing Olympics. “I made a decision that broke me,” she said
As a consequence of missing the drugs test, the USA’s McNeal, 30, was handed a five-year suspension, which was upheld by a court in July. McNeal says she had the abortion because she wanted to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, however when she found out the Olympics had been postponed to the following year, she was heartbroken and realised that she “could have had the baby after all”
McNeal, a successful athlete who took home a gold medal for the 100-meter hurdles in the 2016 Olympic Games held in Rio Di Janero, said her abortion left her “traumatised”, “disorientated”, “shaken,” and struggling to get out of bed. She said she wanted to keep the abortion private initially, however, she was pressed for answers when questioned about why she failed to turn up to a doping test in January 2020, two days after the abortion.
Sports Journalist Julia Macur, who interviewed McNeal, writes that the abortion “really affected her life”. McNeal disclosed the devastating aftermath, stating that it “left her medicated in bed” and “suffering from depression”.
In an indication of the pressure facing female athletes, McNeal told Macur was “even more crushed when the Games were postponed until 2021 because the delay meant she could have had the baby after all”.
USA Today reports the California athlete shared about her abortion for the first time publicly after the Athletics Integrity Unit banned her from competing when she was charged with “tampering within the results management process” for mendatory drug testing for athletes. McNeal has insisted throughout that she is “not doping and will never dope,” and that her punishment came about as the result of the “very emotional time” she faced when she had the abortion according to the New York Times.
On January 12, 2020, two days after the abortion she missed a required doping test; later, when she received her medical records to prove to athletics officials why she missed the test, she altered the date of her abortion procedure on the forms, the report says.
McNeal admitted she was struggling emotionally at the time, and she changed the date by 24 hours on her medical records as in her “disorientated” state, she thought the abortion facility had made a mistake. The changed date of the abortion was the basis of the board’s decision to suspend her, a move which could effectively end her career.
“Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized, and to me it is unfair,” she said in response to her athletic suspension. “I just don’t believe that this warranted a suspension at all, much less a five-year suspension, for just a technicality, an honest mistake during a very emotional time.” She said she chose to share about the abortion publicly because she wants people to know that her banning has nothing to do with drug use.
In a tragic twist, a decision – which was made in the first place because she worried her pregnancy would get in the way of her dreams – ended up being the catalyst for the potential loss of her career, as well as the loss of her baby’s life. After the abortion, she said she began to feel guilt and suffered from depression. A Christian, she said that in her despair, she sought the help of a spiritual adviser in her church.
In a post published in February 2021 on Instagram, McNeal thanked her supporters and asked for prayers: “I would like to thank all of the real people for supporting me throughout one of the most difficult times of my life; my sponsor Nike, thank you. It has been a tough few weeks…Keep me in your prayers.”
Sanya Richards-Ross is another prominent athlete who has spoken out about the pressure she succumbed to, having an abortion in 2008 just prior to the Beijing Olympic Games. The Jamaican-American track and field athlete has divulged how a heart-breaking abortion culture lies at the heart of female athletics, telling Sports Illustrated Now in a 2017 interview, “I literally don’t know another female track athlete who hasn’t had an abortion… and that’s sad”.
She believes that her own situation, one that is lived out by many female athletes, speaks to a toxic culture that encourages athletes to do “whatever it takes” to perform at the highest level – tragically even if that means putting an end to a pregnancy.
“There is a brokenness there. When I started to share my story I was like ‘wow,’ so many women around me have been through the same thing and no matter how close you are, it’s something that people don’t share,” she told BBC radio.
Richards-Ross said that sharing her story allowed her to find healing after her abortion and also helped other women. “Now I’ve had other women reach out to me, not just in track and field but all over the world. They’ve said ‘your courage is helping me to heal myself. That’s meant a whole lot to me.”
36-year-old Richards-Ross said that in her opinion, she felt the prevalence of abortion amongst young female athletes could be rooted in misinformation spread on college campuses among peers that pregnancy is impossible for women athletes who have lost their menstrual cycles due to such intense exercise regimes.
In her book, Chasing Grace, she described feeling she had “no choice at all” and ran the risk of losing her career if she did not get an abortion.
“I WISHED I COULD JUST DIE AND FALL BELOW THE TRACK. I HAD BEEN BROKEN IN EVERY WAY.”
Giving her testimony of post-abortion recovery for the first time at her church in 2017, she said: “If nothing else, this should inspire all of us to know that God can use every single one of us to do great things; to complete his big visions through us, but we have to be obedient. We have to surrender and we have to believe…and it won’t be easy, but He will see His plans to completion. This is the greatest podium of them all…and I’ve been blessed to stand on a few.”
Through tears, she said: “And I’ve decided to be obedient to God, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. Isn’t it true that many times we are floating through life…we have a good relationship with God, work is going great, relationships are awesome, we’re just happy and content and we feel like nothing can go wrong.
“Well that’s how I felt in 2008. I was the young new face of USA track and field with over 8 national brand sponsors. The love of my life, my college sweetheart, had proposed, and I was undefeated in the 400 metre race, and I was the heavy favourite to win gold at the Olympics. I was literally on top of the world…. All my life I was chasing gold, but God was always after my soul.”
“I knew (God) was good and that his love was everlasting, but I hadn’t truly experienced it for myself. While the 2008 season rocked my world, and reshaped my understanding of our great God.”
The 400 metre track specialist said that she made the decision with her then-fiance and current husband Aaron Ross, who played for the New York Giants and was in training camp. She said that he too has suffered.
“He was there for me as much could be,” she said in an interview with SI Now.
“But it was something that we kind of never talked about. It was almost like, if we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. … For so much of my relationship, I felt I experienced it by myself. And so when Ross and I finally dealt with it, I was able to see his hurt.”
“The month prior to the Olympics, I found out I was pregnant. Ross and I had been so careful, but it didn’t matter,” she recalled.
“I was at a crossroads; have a child out of wedlock at the prime of my career, let my team, my family, myself down, become a mom when all I’ve ever wanted to do was stand at the top of the podium and hear the national anthem being played in my honour, complete the […] long-standing dreams of my own heart.
“But abortion? “Thou shalt not kill.” It went against everything I believed in and all I ever wanted to be. I believe we all have a sin line, an imaginary line that we say we’ll never cross, and usually we draw the line right behind our comfortable sins. But what do you do when you ride up against your line?” an emotional Richards-Ross recalled.
“The day before I boarded the flight to Beijing, I terminated my pregnancy, and a little piece of my soul. The doctor advised me that I should take 14 days off with no activity, but I had an Olympic gold medal to win. I didn’t tell my dad or my coaches.“
Speaking about her journey to an abortion clinic in Chasing Grace, she said:
“I knew I was at a crossroads. Everything I ever wanted seemed to be within reach. The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me. In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all… All of the crying leading up to that moment had left me so numb that I barely remember the cold instruments as they brushed against my skin”.
She now says that the tragic decision will “forever be a part” of her life, but that the choice appeared clear at the time. In her book, she penned: “The debate of when life begins swirled through my head, and the veil of a child out of wedlock at the prime of my career seemed unbearable. What would my sponsors, my family, my church, and my fans think of me?”
The favourite to win the Olympic gold medal in the individual 400 metre sprint, she instead finished in third-place. She believes that her feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthiness over feeling pressured into the abortion impacted on her performance and resulted in her third-place finish.
Her abortion ended up costing her far more than the Olympic gold, though, and she writes: “I made a decision that broke me.”
“I just kept chasing my dream but for the first time I realised that no matter how healthy my body was, no matter how prepared I’d been, this wasn’t a physical race. It was a spiritual one and it had always been.
“Nothing I did could remove the shame and guilt I carried in my heart. I kept moving forward. It’s what I trained myself to do for over two decades, but I could not outrun my broken spirit. The night before the finals I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night begging God to forgive me and just allow me to have the moment.
“And although I kept asking for it, I’m not sure I really wanted it, or if I felt like I deserved it. In some weird way, I feel like the Olympic final was my sacrifice back to God. After finishing the race and earning the bronze medal, the weight of it all brought me to my knees. I wished I could just die and fall below the surface of the track. I had been broken in every way. But that’s not where the story ends.
“And in what felt like the most inequitable exchange I’ve ever experienced, God offered me His forgiveness for my brokenness.
“That night, all I wanted to do was get back to my family. I didn’t want to go back to the Olympic village and answer all of the questions […] I was lost physically and spiritually.”
Richard-Ross’s story, although tragic and difficult, is also a tale of redemption, she says.
“Then I felt the loving arms of my Saviour, my father, my healer and my redeemer hug me and whisper, ‘you’ll be alright’ and I love you forever. I wept. In my valley, in the pits of my hell, God was right there with me. He never left me; not in the clinic, not during the race, and certainly not on the streets of Beijing.
“The worst experience of my life – the one that the devil had intended to use to keep me in bondage, in a place of despair and shame – God used to reveal His perfect love. I absolutely don’t wish this experience on anyone but what I can tell you is when life gets grey, when you feel like you’ve crossed your line and there’s no return, God is still waiting for you with open arms.”
Sanya Richards-Ross’ Testimony- God’s Grace after Abortion. Chasing Grace