The road to gold, met with concern: How the U.S. Olympics Committee can become a champion for reproductive justice

By Melissa Torres-Montoya

My passion for the Olympics started early.  I jokingly date it back to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where my Mom attended the games 2 months pregnant with me. While I didn’t quite see the Olympics in 1984, it was in my blood and by 1992, I was a full-blown fan: daydreaming that one day I would become a U.S. Olympic gymnast but as I never made it past kindergarten gymnastics, unsurprisingly, this never occurred. Instead, I started my career lawyering for reproductive justice through a policy fellowship sponsored by the newly minted If/When/How organization, formerly, Law Students for Reproductive Justice. The name “If/When/How” reflects the basic tenants of reproductive justice; the individuals’ right to decide “If” and “When” they want to bear children, and “How” they want to raise their children with dignity.

As a reproductive justice lawyer, I see the potential for the U.S. response to Zika as an opportunity to raise consciousness worldwide about reproductive justice/rights. While much has been written about how the outbreak of the Zika virus in a country that has weak reproductive justice/rights for women and the issue of increasing threats to reproductive rights in the U.S. as Zika reaches the U.S. necessitates protecting and expanding reproductive justice/rights, I want to suggest that even as Zika clearly poses a worldwide public health danger, the U.S. response could also help bring attention to and an understanding of reproductive justice/rights. By comprehensively responding to Zika, the United States can further its commitment to the value of individual ability to make decisions regarding ones’ reproductive and sexual life.

Zika virus is transmitted through mosquito bites, as well as sexually. The virus causes flu like symptoms that last a few days. However, it can remain in the bloodstream for 70 to 90 days, even without symptoms. Additionally, the virus can have disastrous effects on men and women’s reproductive health. Men can carry the virus in their testes for longer and can transmit Zika to a woman through their sperm. The consequences of a woman with Zika during pregnancy can be serious birth defects, including microcephaly. In Brazil, since 2015 over 7,000 babies have been born with this neurological condition which can cause both mild disabilities and “significant learning disabilities, cognitive delays, or develop other neurological disorders.”

The CDC is recommending that women who have been exposed to Zika or who have Zika, wait at least 8 weeks after exposure or 8 weeks after symptoms before trying to conceive. For men, they must wait 8 weeks after exposure and 6 months if they had Zika. The CDC also recommends consulting a physician. Some physicians, experts in infectious diseases, are recommending that if a man is planning conception in the next 24 months, they should freeze their sperm.

While freezing sperm is a valid precaution to a legitimate public health concern, the stance of the U.S. Olympic Committee is that it is up to individual athletes to determine for themselves whether Zika poses a high enough risk to warrant dropping out or otherwise they run the risk and attend. This is just not enough. The response by the U.S. Olympics Committee to this virus being to provide education, increase condom availability and advise athletes to drop out of the Olympics if they are worried, represents an infringement of reproductive choice because for many athletes attending the Olympics is a huge part of their job and furthering their livelihood is dependent on their performance at this worldwide top watched sporting event. This lack of meaningful choice in attending the Olympics for many athletes is further evidenced by the athletes who have chosen to drop out of the Olympics or are considering not attending. The athletes who have opted out of attending have sizeable regular pay checks or endorsements received through their performance at more well regarded competitions for their sport, like NBA players and pro-golfers. Others, like Pau Gasol (an NBA player), in debating whether to go, called out the Olympics regarding not going far enough in their Zika precautions for the athletes and considered freezing his own sperm.

And for some members of the U.S. Olympic contingent, the pressure to attend is more than their athletic career: it’s about social change. For example, the U.S. women’s soccer team is pushing for equal pay and winning the Olympics may be key in helping them achieve their goal. When a requirement of our jobs is essentially putting our reproductive choice and health at risk, it should follow that the best efforts are set forth to prevent potential negative health impacts.

Unfortunately, for women the option for freezing eggs is likely a less realistic option, as it is a very costly, complicated and invasive medical procedure. Since Zika leaves a woman’s body more quickly than for men, it may actually pose less of a risk for a woman who is not pregnant. However, the U.S. Olympics Committee can help reduce the reproductive health risks potentially faced by males attending the Olympics by offering to freeze the sperm of athletes, coaches, and other individuals who are attending as part of their job and who are interested or may be interested in having children within the next two years. The cost for freezing male’s sperm and protecting their reproductive health is minimal, at $1,000 per male, even if all 250 male athletes chose to have their sperm frozen (unlikely), the total cost would amount to only about $50K more than cost of the average single family home in the U.S. Recently, the U.S. military has begun to offer egg and sperm freezing as part of their health care plan, demonstrating a commitment to helping enable men and women to better decide when they would like to have children—specifically noting that it allows them the option to create families in the future despite potential injuries due to military service. The Olympics, similarly, has a chance to push forward this principle tenant of reproductive justice by offering to freeze the sperm of male athletes in order to alleviate potential detrimental impacts Zika could have on their procreation plans.

The 30 for 30 Campaign focuses on elevating and meeting the needs specific to women living with HIV because historically societal attitudes toward reproductive health have often been gendered, with women’s reproductive health regularly relegated less important. Additionally, women often face more extensive and unique reproductive health challenges. However, the Campaign also acknowledges that the reproductive health of women and men are generally inextricably linked. As an organization that works to ensure women living with HIV are able to fulfill their reproductive desires and also have the right if, when & how to have children, it is important to highlight instances that help further reproductive justice for all individuals.

Encouraging the Olympics to provide men the option to freeze their sperm serves to support reproductive autonomy and justice. Moreover, enabling individuals to have the right to decide when to have healthy pregnancies, even in such a limited instance like male athletes at the Olympics, helps set a precedence and establishing the principles of reproductive justice in such a high profile instance draws more attention to a social justice movement that is crucial to bettering the health and lives of women across the nation and world, particularly imperative given the recent pervasive political attacks upon these rights.


MTM_HeadShotMelissa Torres-Montoya, JD, MPH, is the Project Director for the 30 for 30 Campaign.  She started her political engagement at the age of 17 in the California state legislature and after earning her law degree from UC Berkeley, has spent the past five years working to protect and expand sexual and reproductive justice in the U.S.