Lighting Our Own Torches

When I read Micheal Winerip’s New York Times article Where to Pass the Torch? I realized that
this article was directed at me.  I was born in 1973 and I have
always known life in the U.S.
post-Roe.  And for most of
my adult life, I have been hearing my mother’s generation complain that my
generation and those after me take abortion access for granted, that we don’t
appreciate it because we didn’t have to fight to see it legalized.

We’ve had plenty to fight for all our lives, and we’ve never thought abortion access was a guarantee.

It has NOT been all roses and rainbows since 1973.  The struggle for
female bodily autonomy has continued, if not heightened over my lifetime. 
My earliest memory of anything remotely abortion-related was when I was 11
years old, on my way to the natural history museum in Houston and we had to
drive through a giant anti-abortion rally in Hermann Park. 
I remember passing the angry adult faces and the small children with them,
carrying signs with ugly messages of hate.  I didn’t quite understand what
they were protesting, but I knew that I didn’t want to be a part of whatever it

I have never taken abortion rights for granted because throughout my lifetime,
they have always been at risk.  The threat has been visible; it is
felt.  And I don’t doubt that the women who have come of age after me feel
the same.

I’ve been hearing for years about how the anti-choice movement has done such a
great job of engaging youth.  I refuse to believe that is because their
message is so much more appealing, but perhaps it is their approach. 
After college, I worked for a pro-choice organization and I could not have been
happier about it.  But soon it became apparent that my young co-workers
and I were not going to be treated like adults capable of taking over the reins
of an agency one day.  We were coffee fetchers.  I left that job
after barely a year because I had too much love for myself to stay in a place
where I wasn’t treated with respect, especially when that job had me working
more than 60 hours per week for $18,000 a year with zero benefits.  It
broke my heart to leave what I thought was my dream job:  getting paid to
fight for women’s reproductive rights.

Does the post-Roe generation care?  Yes.  They absolutely care.  I see it all the
time.  They’re working in the clinics and in nonprofits for little pay and
they’re stepping up to volunteer, to speak out.  They’re in the streets,
on campuses, in their communities and they aren’t invisible. They are starting
abortion assistance funds and raising money to help women who can’t afford an
abortion, usually devoting countless volunteer hours to the cause.  I hear
about how medical schools are not teaching abortion, but then I see groups of
young med students organizing Medical Students for Choice chapters in their
conservative schools and demanding clinicals in abortion procedure.  I see
law students starting Law Students for Reproductive Justice chapters and
getting their administrations to offer reproductive justice courses. 
Young people are out there fighting for our reproductive rights everyday, but
they have to be treated with respect, as adults and as leaders.  They will
carry the those torches, especially if we make it viable for them.

Even for those young people that would like to work in this movement, it is not
always possible.  It is important to remember that higher education is
becoming more and more expensive and students are leaving with greater student
loan debt than even before.  In the years since I graduated, private loans
have become more pervasive, and university financial aid offices seem to be
pushing them at every turn.  With the higher interest rates and resultant
staggering student loan payments, this leaves quite a burden on young,
college-educated people who would like to devote their lives to social justice
work.  They want to make the sacrifice, but when you get out of college with
tens of thousands in student loan debt, it’s not always possible to work for
the poverty wages that many abortion-related jobs pay. 

And this applies to even those with professional certifications, like
nurses.  A friend of mine recently struggled with a negotiation to get a
local clinic to pay her the going rate for a nurse at an abortion clinic, which
was still below what she could make somewhere else.  And non-professionals
are paid even less.  Of course clinics and nonprofits are limited by many
factors, but sometimes I truly believe they could pay living wages if they made
the effort.  I was once told by a clinic employee that she thought the
director was more interested in finding people to work as cheaply as possible
than in finding qualified employees.  And a director of a pro-choice
agency confided in me that she wanted to hire a college grad because "I
can get him cheap."

I agree with the article that becoming an abortion provider carries additional
burdens, such as the threats on your life and the loss of privacy.  Those
are factors that we can’t always control, but we can control the other aspects
of the environment to a certain extent.  We can make these jobs viable
options for young people, by valuing them and their work in various ways, including
compensation and benefits.  And I’ve found that the more respect someone
is given, the more they are willing to sacrifice some creature comforts to do
the work.

Regardless of the low wages and few tangible rewards, the post-Roe generation is still stepping up to the
plate and doing all they can to protect reproductive freedom and make it
accessible to all.  So, to the Sally
Burgesses of the world I say keep your torches.  We’ve already lit our

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  • invalid-0

    Awesome! I love it! I feel the same way!

  • erin-kate-ryan

    Astute observations, Heather. And you’re right–we do see that young
    women are lighting their own torches. As you said (and as Katha
    mentioned here), young women are starting and running abortion funds around the country.
    One of the many strengths of grassroots organizations is the
    opportunity they provide for young people to carve their own niches, to
    take leadership positions, and to take ownership of their movements.
    The young women in abortion funds aren’t fetching coffee or making
    copies–they’re making reproductive freedom a reality, one woman at a

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for writing such an interesting critique of pro-choice labor, Heather.

    It got me thinking. If institutions are skittish about training providers in pro-choice procedures, then doesn’t it rest all the more on pro-choice clinics to offer the procedures? And without competition from other venues, clinics can probably justify not paying as much, since pro-choice work looks more like a labor of love than just another job. At some point in the future, when reproductive health isn’t ghettoized into clinics, I wonder if the pay will get better, with more competition for skilled providers who know the procedures.

    Anywho, not that I know a helluva lot about the topic, but it got me a thinkin’ hopewise.

  • invalid-0

    From a tactical standpoint, I kind of wish Roe v. Wade would be overturned. I believe that nothing really would change in terms of availability. There are some states that make it impossible to have an abortion now even with a Supreme Court ruling. And most moderate to liberal states would allow abortion to continue, likely as is.

    The point I am trying to make is that forcing Republicans to vote against abortion would totally destroy them as a political party. Now Republicans have the best of both worlds when it comes to abortion – they can be against it to mollify the religious right but they never have to go on record as voting to ban it.

    By making it a state issue, you would force Republicans to face the reality that most people support at least some abortion rights or face the extinction of their political party.

  • invalid-0

    Heather- LOVE the article, I so feel you!

    Thomas- I feel that way about Roe sometimes myself, because as much as I love my federal “right” to an abortion, it is a TERRIBLE legal basis (my right to an abortion is NOT about privacy, it’s a self-determination issue- should have been a 14th A case, not 9th!). But then, I snap back into reality and realize that I’m not giving up any ground!

  • lindsey-oliver

    Thanks for writing this Heather! It’s incredibly frustrating to always have to defend our place in the movement, when it’s so undeniably obvious that we are not only in the movement, but in many cases the fuel that keeps it going. I find that the older generation loves it when we are involved with doing the brute of the work, and like you said, working for next to nothing (or often for nothing at all), but get very defensive when we decide to lead the direction instead of always just following.

    Also, I think it’s a moot point to say that we don’t know what it’s like to not have abortion legal. As if this makes us incapable of having the same passion that someone of the pre-Roe has. When I was 16 I had an abortion that I had to fight for, because I was poor and underage and had no one who could help me and I was born in 1983. I know what it’s like to be terrified and desperate for an abortion, and I am not alone. Everyday I talk to women on the phone who are in the same state of desperation as I was when I was 16 and thought that I was heading on a one way road to motherhood against my will. For these women legal and safe is not enough, they need more then a clinic to go to, but someone to pay for it. And I do, and so do many other young people who are devoted and invested in the reproductive justice movement through the National Network of Abortion Funds (

    Don’t leave us out of your re-telling of history, we won’t allow it.

  • invalid-0

    Thanks so much, Heather. In the past few years, I have seen an upsurge of student involvement in our clinic. In addition, we have more young smart feminists applying to work at the clinic. We are doing more community outreach than ever before. It certainly has re-energized me and our entire staff and I am more confident in our future than ever before.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t know how abortion funds around the country could survive without the energy, insight and new approaches that your generation brings to the table. Thanks for standing up and demand recognition.

    -Joanne Richards, Lilith Fund

  • invalid-0

    I read your post and wondered about the term “reproductive justice” – and why tax payers should pay for abortions for girls who have sex without considering (or knowing?) the natural consequences — a baby? Where is the justice for taxpayers who must pay for a surgical procedure resulting from someone’s decision to have sex? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just not have sex (a leading cause of pregnancy)so as not to feel headed on a road to motherhood against one’s will? I understand the fear and desperation as I have been there — I just think your solution (govt funded abortions) is not the right or just solution for women — it will only perpetuate the lie of sex without consequences and pregnancy (i.e. babies) as a problem.

  • invalid-0

    As a clinic administrator, I want to thank all the young women who have contributed so much to the repro rights movement. Not only do young women bring fresh ideas and energy to the issues, but they are the ones who will eventually be delivering the services in the future so it is important that abortion providers bring them “into the fold” right now. The low pay is a terrible problem, one that I fear may get worse before it gets better. The problem is that the patients can only be charged a low amount or they can’t afford the abortion. While the cost of health care has gone up something like 3000% since 1973 (Roe decision year), the cost of an abortion has not even tripled. The cost of an abortion ought to be over $1000 for the first trimester. Then the staff could be paid a living wage. It’s as if the workers have to want to do the work so much that they will forgo a decent salary.

    Now, with so many of our patients out of work, having no insurance, even being homeless, how can we raise their fee that high? Then they might have to resort to illegal unsafe abortions. It really is a dilemma and gets worse all the time. This is the problem I would love to hear solutions for. How can we charge at least 2-3 times more for an abortion yet keep the service available to all who need it? Yes, there are many funds to help women in need, but the amount of money available nowhere near covers the need for it. One of the long time funds ran out of money for this month during the first week of March!

    All suggestions welcome!