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Laura Stepp Headshot

Olympic Champions and Birth Control

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I just returned from the summer Olympics wishing this: If only a female U.S. medalist had appeared on TV and said, "I want to thank Mom, Dad, my coach... and my IUD."

I'm kidding. Sort of.

American female athletes gave an amazing performance in this year's Games. They outnumbered American men and competed in all women's events for the first time. They won more medals than the men, including more gold medals (women-29, men-17). They also drew large television audiences, especially among 12- to 17-year-old girls.

Watching U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo throw herself horizontally in order to rebuff Japan's goal attempts, I was reminded in a glorious way of two milestones that help account for the Americans' success.

The most obvious is Title IX, the 1972 law requiring schools to provide girls access to sports they hadn't enjoyed before. The second development, being challenged in this election season by vocal, conservative Republicans, is the increased availability of birth control.

Without the IUD, implant, pill and other methods, many of our athletic heroines might have been home changing diapers or packing school lunches instead of scoring soccer goals and setting swimming records. Yes, there were 13 mothers among the 268 American women. The others were able to delay childbearing to pursue their dreams (and I suspect after seeing their mom-colleagues, enormously grateful.)

Contraception in this country can be costly -- especially the most reliable methods. You have to wonder how many more U.S. women would have been able to train and qualify for Olympic competition were all methods of contraception completely covered by insurance, as is the case in some other Western countries.

On Aug. 1, the sixth day of the Games, the Affordable Care Act went into effect requiring employers to include such comprehensive coverage in their insurance plans, thus making efficient contraception accessible to an estimated 47 million women.

However, certain GOP lawmakers and officeholders, as well as some private businesses and Catholic institutions, are attempting to scuttle key provisions of the act through court challenges. In addition, both GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan have said that if elected, they would deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood, whose clinics supply contraception to millions of girls and women.

Apparently these politicians don't pay attention to polls showing that a majority of Americans, including Catholics, believe employers (other than places of worship) should provide health care plans that include no out-of-pocket expenses for contraception.

Young women who grow up in middle- and upper-income homes, who acquire good jobs and find partners with good jobs, will always be able to afford -- and have access to -- the most effective methods of contraception. Those from low-income and working-class families aren't always that fortunate. Were Romney and Ryan to win the election and succeed in their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, less-privileged girls with lots of athletic potential talent might find themselves shopping for baby food instead of practicing their high jumps.

That would be unfortunate. In what we like to call our "land of opportunity," every qualified, aspiring young athlete, if she or he so desires, should be able to train for a shot at the gold. Coaches in this country continue to search for a diverse group of female athletes who show promise. Some have even provided financial assistance out of their own bank accounts. They know that enlarging the pool of contenders is good for the athletes, the teams and Americans who want to see their country remain competitive.