Women, Listen to Your Mothers


Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes (with characteristic brilliance) on the abortion-activism generational divide. Her finding: the post-Roe generation gets less worked up about the right to choose “not because younger women are any less supportive of abortion rights than their elders, but because their frame of reference is different.”

I think she’s nailed it. I don’t believe that my generation is more pro-life than my mother’s generation, but I’m not sure that we understand what’s at stake. We’ve grown up in a time and place in which it’s unthinkable that any of us seeking an abortion would be told, No. No way.

The difference between the generations—and it’s both our blessing and our curse—is that my generation has the luxury of thinking about abortion in a more complicated way.  What are my feelings about abortion?  How can we fine-tune pro-choice rhetoric to reflect the complexity of abortion?

Obama is clearly engaged with these questions, as he often talks about abortion as a troubling moral issue—and famously, in The Audacity of Hope, referred to the "middle-aged feminist who regrets her abortion." Obama’s acknowledgement that there’s something “dark” about abortion may have paid off: while he’s still assailed as “pro-abortion” by prominent anti-choice groups, he received some surprising endorsements from the pro-life community during his campaign, including the high-profile support of Doug Kmiec (who paid for his support by being publicly vilified by his priest and refused Communion).

It’s good to think about anything, including abortion, in a serious, nuanced way. But abortion needs to be legal for us to have the freedom to have these discussions. Abortion will not be a complicated personal choice if the anti-choicers currently flexing their muscles in Congress have their way: it will be illegal.

So, yes, I am frustrated with my generation’s attitude towards reproductive choice. Many of us seem to be neglecting the political reality of abortion: that it’s only been a federally-protected right for thirty-five years. Stolberg points to this, quoting Nancy Keenan:

Ms. Keenan, who is 57, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was illegal, tend to view it in stark political terms — as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But younger people tend to view abortion as a personal issue, and their interests are different.

Abortion is a personal issue—but legally, it’s either a protected right, or it’s not. We need to remember that what matters politically is the right to have an abortion. Since young women take that right for granted, we talk about other things: how we feel about abortion, if we’d haveone, if we think our daughters or sisters should have one, etc. We can say, “Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion,” or—something I hear often from pro-choice women my age—“I don’t particularly like abortion.”

Yes, it’s understood that not everyone likes abortion or would choose to have one: that’s why it’s so important that the choice is private, and that the government is involved only insomuch as it protects that choice. Because of the tremendous work done in the 60s and 70s, we can all sit around and have conversations about our feelings about abortion. These are valuable conversations, but they’re not legally relevant. We have them because we assume that the legal status of abortion is stable.

But with Congress on the verge of drastically curtailing our abortion rights—particularly, the rights of those with limited financial means—young women need to start talking in terms of those rights. It’s time for us to take a lesson from our mothers, who understood that the only way to ensure that abortion is a “personal issue” is by protecting the right to choose, period. The “menopausal militia,” as Nancy Keenan calls the warriors for abortion legalization, were not subtle because they knew, all too well, that you either have the right to choose or you don’t. Yes, debating the ethics of abortion is a nice way to engage pro-life advocates and, perhaps, to find common ground. But if we lose this right, there is no debate.

Defend your rights by signing Planned Parenthood’s Stop Stupak! petition or, better yet, by joining them on Wednesday, December 2 in D.C. (The Center for Reproductive Rights also has information on the National Day of Action.)

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To schedule an interview with Kathleen Reeves please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • harry834

    It’s good to think about anything, including abortion, in a serious, nuanced way. But abortion needs to be legal for us to have the freedom to have these discussions.

    Think about it. How free are we to think about murder or child rape in a “nuanced way”? The anti-abortion crowd wants abortion to be treated the same way murder and child rape are treated by the law and by society.

    Really by this logic ALL women who had abortions, whether they “regret” their abortion or not, whether they are anti-abortion, pro-choice, or in between, should be tried for murder. And anyone who sought an abortion but didn’t get one should be tried for attempted murder. Pregnant teens would be juvenile murderers. I used to make this argument all the time on this site, but what I dislike about it is that I would hate for any of this to come true. The good news is that (most) American anti-choicers, to their credit, will at least draw the line before legislating those horrible possibilities. However, that doesn’t deal with the logical inconsistency that the attempts to ban abortion are based on the idea that abortion is murder…but we’re not going to prosecute the women who hired the hit. I’m wondering if this might also be a legal inconsistency as well as a logical one.
    Maybe all anti-abortion laws can be struck down because once the “abortion = murder” principle has been proven unapplicable, what justification is there for these laws which infringe on the freedom of doctors and their patients? We have good reasons for legally restricting the freedom to drive at 120mph, to have sex with children, to save money by evading taxes…but we have no reason to restrict the freedom to have an abortion unless the “abortion = murder” principle can stand in our legislative/legal constructs. Right now we have divided passions legislating it as murder only to the extent that it feels comfortable, and is supported politically. Since when can “murder” be a debateable concept?

  • harry834

    the U.S. constitution says "born and naturalized". The word "unborn" is not to be found. As a liberal, I can’t claim to be a strict constructionist, but supposedly the conservatives are. So, keep reminding them of their fallacy.

    Not sure how many "egg-as-person" amendments have passed at the state level, but surely they can be beaten legally and/or legislatively. I mean, we did reverse the 18th Amendment of the U.S. constitution.

  • crowepps

    Really by this logic ALL women who had abortions, whether they "regret" their abortion or not, whether they are anti-abortion, pro-choice, or in between, should be tried for murder. And anyone who sought an abortion but didn’t get one should be tried for attempted murder.

     

    And any "suspicious death" of a fetus by spontaneous abortion would have to be investigated to see whether charges of murder or manslaughter should be lodged.  This would, of course, have a disproportionate impact on the poor, since they are far less likely to be under a doctor’s care and far less likely to have any idea what happened.  Both times I had spontaneous abortions, the doctors told me that there was no explanation for why it happened.

     

    If women are found to have a legal ‘duty’ to gestate, it follows logically that any fetus that is miscarried or any infant born disabled will have a tort against its mother for ‘not gestating correctly’.  Considering that over 50% of conceptions never make it through to live birth and that 1% of live-born infants have some sort of birth defect, I suppose the insurance companies will have to offer ‘malpregnancy insurance’ to cover the claims brought on behalf of the unborn and newly born by ProLife personal injury attorneys who move the court to appoint them as representives.  After all, once the relationship between the fetus and its mother is interpreted as adversarial and her pregnancy is a duty, THAT WOMAN can’t possibly be considered unbiased or trusted to discern the best interest of her child.