Hormonal and other changes in pregnancy affect physical performance. In the first three months it is known that a woman’s body produces a natural surplus of red blood cells, which are well supplied with oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, in order to support the growing foetus. A study of athletes before and after pregnancy by Professor James Pivarnik at the Human Energy Research laboratory in Michigan State University has found there is a 60 per cent increase in blood volume and that this could improve the body’s ability to carry oxygen to muscles by up to 30 per cent. This would have obvious positive effects on aerobic capacity. Other potential advantages are obtained from the surge in hormones that pregnancy induces, predominantly progesterone and oestrogen, but also testosterone, which could increase muscle strength. Increases in hormones like relaxin, which loosens the hip joints to prepare for childbirth, may have a performance-enhancing effect on joint mobility.
Rumours arose in the 1970s and 1980s that such physiological improvements during pregnancy led to attempts by East German athletes to enhance their performance by getting pregnant and then having an abortion. Prince Alexandre de Merode, then vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), supported stories that Eastern European athletes do get artificially inseminated and then abort two to three months later in an attempt to boost athletic performance. The prince went on to claim he knew a Swiss doctor who was performing the procedure; however, it has yet to be proven. The procedure was determined not to be illegal by the IOC.
Regarding the incident Greg Whyte, Professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, has stated: "It is certainly viable that pregnancies were enforced and then terminated as part of the old East German regime, some doctors have claimed they know that is the case.”
Testing and prevalence
Testing for abortion doping is virtually impossible, as the only things to test for are the athletes’ own naturally enriched blood and hormones. While abortion doping is officially banned under United States Olympic rules, there is no ban on getting pregnant. If an athlete was accused of abortion doping, she could simply argue that the pregnancy was not induced for the temporary physiological benefits. It remains unknown how common the procedure is, and it has yet to be proven if it has been purposely implemented at all. Opinions vary greatly; it is regarded as completely unfounded by some and is accepted as a worldwide athletic phenomenon by others.
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- Stanek, Jill (May 25, 2007). "Female athletes, the "weakened state" of pregnancy, and abortion doping". Jillstanek.com. Retrieved June 29, 2009.
- Greer, Germaine (May 6, 2007). "It's time for the pregnant Olympics". Guardian.co.uk. Retrieved April 29, 2010.
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- Webb, Royce. "Fahrenheit 755: Baseball Gets Hammered, or The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Da Fetus". ESPN. Retrieved April 29, 2010.