Tennis legend and feminist icon, Billie Jean King spoke about how cumbersome it had been back in her days to obtain an abortion on the sole reason that a woman might not choose to embrace pregnancy. As deliberations are in progress at the Supreme Court regarding the legality and permissibility of Mississippi’s ban on abortions which might eventually see a reversal of the Roe vs Wade milestone verdict, Jean King herself went through an ordeal in 1971, something which she carries with herself even to this day. She had to explain her reasons of getting an abortion to a panel comprising of completely unknown men.
Billie Jean King at that time was wed to her former high-school sweetheart, Larry King but theirs wasn’t a picture perfect happy relationship. As she spoke about it, she said they always had a lot of chaos surrounding themselves and it would have been a difficult environment to bring up a child. On top of that her pregnancy was totally unplanned. She found out about it while on the sets of a tennis match at 27 years of age, when she almost threw up on the court. A shaky marriage and with her career peaking, it wasn’t a conducive environment at all to bring a child into. Her husband has been however quite supportive of her state of mind and reasoning, offering her all adjustments and helping hand in whatever decision she made. The couple agreed then and there that it had to be a woman’s right to decide if she would want to continue or terminate her pregnancy since any other decision would be an imposition on her bodily autonomy.
Living in California at that time, 2 years before the legendary Roe vs Wade verdict in 1973 that legalised abortion all over USA, Billie Jean King considers herself real lucky that she didn’t have to forcefully continue her pregnancy. Abortion was already legal in California at that time but she did have to provide justification for her decision to a hospital committee, all men, and prove that the procedure was “therapeutic”.
As she reflected on how difficult those days had been for women, she commented, “Anyone seeking an abortion had to obtain approval from a hospital committee — that is, tell a panel of strangers why they believed their pregnancy would ‘gravely impair’ their physical and mental health. Arguing to a dozen or so people I had never met why I qualified for an abortion remains one of the most degrading experiences of my life.”
King who has since then come out as gay, is now in a happy relationship with partner Ilana Kloss but carries the vestiges of her ordeal with her even to this date. Not only the committee’s approval and judgement, she also had to get an authorisation from her husband which was nothing if not an indignation. She expressed disappointment at how men then not only subjugated women in all spheres of life, governing their financial conditions and having them do their biddings but also would try to govern their bodily autonomy.
Even in a place where abortion was legal you “would have to jump through hoops” to get the procedure approved for you and the situation was worse for lesser fortunate women who might have lower financial means or belonged to more backward communities.
“Those less fortunate than me were forced either to continue an unplanned pregnancy or to risk their health obtaining an illegal abortion — if they could find a provider,” she continued.
Coming to terms with the Mississippi State court’s decision to make abortion illegal, Jean King said it was not only a grave mistake but also extremely worrisome for generations of women who have fought tooth and nail to get equal rights and privileges, have their voices heard and respected. If the SC decides to give their verdict in favour of the State, it would overturn the years of struggle in obtaining equal rights and opportunities for women, reverse Roe vs Wade verdict and metaphorically push the world behind for women by at least another 50 years.
“If we lose the ability to control our bodies and our futures, so many of the gains women have made will be undone,” Billie Jean King noted. “At stake are not only indignities and inequities but the rights to self-determination and equal opportunity that would fall along with Roe.”