Some Athletes Used Abortions As Performance-Enhancing Drugs

By Bryan Johnson on Saturday, October 5, 2013
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“For every Olympic champion, there at least 350 invalids [. . .] There are young people so worn out by the intensive training that they come out of it mentally blank, which is even more painful than a deformed spine.” —Hans Georg Aschenbach

In A Nutshell

In the first three months of pregnancy, women produce a surplus of red blood cells and hormones in order to support the fetus. Some studies have indicated that the changes can give women an advantage in athletic performance. In the 1970s, rumors began to circulate that East Germany was forcing its athletes to get pregnant before the Olympics in order to take advantage of the hormone changes. The practice became known as abortion doping and was investigated by the Olympic Committee.

The Whole Bushel

A woman’s body undergoes a series of changes once pregnant. In order to support the fetus, she produces a natural supply of red blood cells. The cells are rich in oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and can improve the body’s ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. The increased blood flow can potentially give pregnant women an advantage in aerobic capacity and the ability to run longer, swim faster, or ride a bike with more stamina. During pregnancy, women experience an increase in the hormones progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone, which gives them more strength and power. Mothers will also experience a rise in relaxin, which loosens hip joints and improves joint mobility.

In the 1960s, East Germany started to dominate the Olympic Games and captured a large number of world records. It was revealed that the government had forced many athletes to take steroids. In 2005, 190 East German competitors filed suit against the government in an attempt to get recognition for the abuse, which caused numerous medical conditions.

In the 1980s, people were shocked after allegations surfaced that athletes in East Germany were being forced to get pregnant before the Olympics in order to take advantage of the hormone changes. The women would then terminate the pregnancy after three months. The story became known as the “abortion doping scandal” and was investigated by the Olympic Committee in 1988. The allegations were never proven to be true, but abortion doping is officially banned under Olympic rules.

The rule is controversial and will never be enforced because it isn’t illegal to get pregnant. Dr David James, a researcher from the University of Gloucester, says the effects of pregnancy on performance are difficult to study. “Researchers and pregnant women aren’t enthusiastic about participating in studies in which they could possibly endanger babies. Consequently, there are few confirmed findings on the subject.”

Show Me The Proof

Sportswomen benefit from pregnancy
Forgotten victims of East German doping take their battle to court
Baby Boost: For some female athletes, pregnancy and childbirth may improve their performance