Should outdoor athletes compete while pregnant?

Kayaker Emily Jackson. Photo via Outdoor Women's Alliance.

Kayaker Emily Jackson; photo via Outdoor Women’s Alliance

Last week, the word about town was that freestyle kayaker Emily Jackson was aiming for a spot on Team USA at the U.S. National Freestyle Team Trials in North Carolina. Being that she's the 2012 World Cup champion and the daughter of whitewater legend Eric "EJ" Jackson, it should have hardly caused a ripple in the news pond. So why were people up in arms about it?

Because Jackson is seven months pregnant.

The Rock Island, Tennessee, native is a veteran freestyle paddler, married to world champion Nick Troutman, part of the Jackson Kayak manufacturing family, a frequent visitor in the winner's circle—she knows what she's doing in the water—and, according to Outdoor Women's Alliance, she's been consulting with her doctor and just spent two months training in Uganda.

Still, her move to participate in the trials raises the recurring question of whether a pregnant woman participating in an inherently dangerous sport is selfish or not. The debate isn't confined to one community either—climbers questioned the ethics of Alison Hargreaves when she climbed the north face of the Eiger in the Alps while six months pregnant in 1993. She supposedly retorted by saying that she was pregnant, not sick, and that while she had thought about bringing her husband and children with her to base camp, none of her male climbing partners had done the same.

But is this really an argument over male and female familial roles, or should we consider the more biological picture? Sports like mountain biking and kayaking present the potential for hard impact, which could damage the developing baby. Yes, physical activity is important for pregnant mothers, and most baby books give mothers the go ahead to continue whatever activity they engaged in before pregnancy—but climbing with a top rope and harness and going for run both carry much less of a risk for both mother and child than more aggressive sports. You might argue that driving is the most dangerous thing we do—but one could counter that freestyling is more of an unnecessary risk in comparison (and some doctors recommend avoiding driving after eight months).  Still, try telling that to Jackson, who kayaks for a living and must compete if she wants a spot at the ICF World Freestyle Championships, which take place after her due date.

In the end, it's the choice made solely by the parents (hopefully in conjunction with a good doctor), but it's a choice worth a little debating. So what's your stance?