‘Millennial’ Misunderstandings and the Movement For Reproductive Justice

In her feature on the supposed generational divide in the pro-choice movement, which ran in Sunday’s New York Times,
Sheryl Gay Stolberg correctly observes that abortion has hit the
headlines recently in the context of health care reform and the
horrendously restrictive Stupak amendment—and it’s not something
reproductive rights advocates are happy about.  But there
isn’t much else I can relate to in her assessment of the current
landscape in reproductive rights advocacy and activism.  In
fact, I think the story—which argues that there is a chasm between the
“menopausal militia,” meaning the generation of feminists who came of
age before Roe v. Wade and view abortion in “stark political
terms,” and the “millennials,” the younger set for whom Stolberg
suggests abortion is a personal issue—misses the mark in a sad but
revealing way.

on quotes from Naral Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan,
Stolberg promotes this political/personal dichotomy without actually
explaining how this supposed shift to the personal manifests
itself—other than the fact that the post-Roe generations seem less responsive to single-issue pro-choice calls to action.  Provocative
accompanying artwork, which consists of a black rectangle with brightly
colored letters spelling “WE” floating above “ME,” implies that younger
women are selfish in neglecting abortion politics.  Yet Stolberg
acknowledges that “a clear majority of Americans support the right to
abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those
over 30 and under 30.”  In fact, she herself points to
several examples of young people organizing right now to stop the
Stupak amendment (including LSRJ’s recent webinar on abortion and
health care reform legislation).  So what’s the issue?

pollster Anna Greenberg concludes that young people don’t respond to
email alerts about contacting their legislators because they know
abortion is legal and believe “if you really need one you can probably
figure out how to get one.”  Which means not only are we selfish, but we’re also foolishly complacent.  But
what about the millions of poor women, immigrant women, and young women
who can’t ever “figure out how to get one” because the barriers we’ve
erected to accessing legal abortion are simply too high?  Such
women may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or to induce
an abortion through other means, with serious consequences for the
health and security of themselves and their families.  And
what about those of us who aren’t poor, immigrant, or under 18 but
believe deeply that how our society treats those women reflects on all
of us, individually and collectively? 

It’s true that I probably don’t respond to the action alerts that fill my inbox as often as I should.  But I resent the suggestion that my entire generation and I are indifferent.  I think the most telling part of the story is when Stolberg
characterizes coalition-building with immigrant rights and LGBT rights
group as a “tactic” to draw young people into reproductive rights
activism, as if the movement’s leaders are waging war against younger
activists.  (To be fair, it’s unclear whether Choice USA executive director Kierra Johnson used the word “tactic” or if that’s Stolberg’s spin.)  Either
way, this doesn’t leave much room to consider whether the 37 additional
years of politics played out on women’s bodies since Roe
might have led us to a more nuanced understanding of how the struggle
for reproductive freedom fits within a larger social justice frame.  Perhaps
the moms and dads concerned with comprehensive sex education for their
kids or the under-25 crowd organizing around environmental justice and
LGBT rights—all of whom are implicitly faulted for not caring enough
about abortion—simply get that single-issue activism isn’t enough.  That’s
the conclusion countless reproductive justice activists have reached,
understanding that reproductive justice will be achieved when all
people have the political, economic, and social power to make decisions
about our health, bodies, and sexuality for ourselves, our families,
and our communities.

Choice USA’s Johnson says young people are “coming at these issues in a much more complex way.”  If
so, the pro-choice movement doesn’t need to dedicate its precious
resources to running focus groups to discern how the “millennials”
think.  We should instead use those resources to support
creative and wide-reaching organizing efforts, informed by reproductive
justice values that recognize coalition-building as an inherent part of
the work, not merely a new tactic to be employed instrumentally.  And as for the New York Times, I think the idea of a generational divide along a personal/political axis unravels by the end of the piece.  The real story is why
when a majority of Americans has consistently favored abortion rights
for the last couple of decades our Congress and President are (again)
willing to sacrifice women’s health in the face of some tough politics.

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  • kerewin21

    I do think that our generation comes at this from a more social justice viewpoint. That includes reproductive justice, which in my opinion includes the right to choose when and how to parent, as well as support for those decisions, rather than the less broad agenda of NARAL or even Planned Parenthood (yes, they provide very basic primary care, but nothing beyond pap smears, STD screening, and contraception; they don’t take care of prenatal patients or women with medical problems). I am much more compelled by groups like the Latina Institute that look at human rights more broadly; the right to health care, to choosing when to have a healthy pregnancy, to access care regardless of race or legal status. The single issue groups like NARAL are less compelling for me because of that.

  • ashleyg

    As a woman under 30 who’s committed to RJ values, I also felt that this piece unfairly emphasized a generational divide. (And I’m glad you called the NYT out on that accompanying graphic!)

  • kinsd

    Great blog, Liz. I think it’s also worth pointing out that many young women who are active in reproductive justice frankly get sick and tired of constantly working their asses off, showing up to events, doing the grunt work and being the go-to technical consultants, only to be told that their generation doesn’t care every time they turn around. Eventually, you get tires of being where you aren’t wanted.

    The whole “young women just don’t care/remember” line is a popular one, but I have yet to see any evidence that it’s actually true.

  • heather-corinna

    For sure.  And I find that ASKING if a given young woman knows that history tends to be a better approach than just figuring, based on her age, actions or ideas, that she doesn’t.


    For example, I was very young when Roe passed, and yet, my very existence has made clear there is no way I could possibly forget what life was like for women before legal abortion and before contraception was legal for unmarried couples.  Neither were available to my parents, and they both made that clear to me when I was old enough to ask questions.  I have watched how much harder my mother’s life was made by a forced pregnancy, a pregnancy that happened too soon for both my parents and the stigmatization around all of that.  I may not have a memory of being an adult in the 60’s and 70’s and knowing other adult or young adult women at that time, but I have very intense, direct knowledge and experience of some of the impact of the lack of those rights simply through some of how my life and my mother’s life have gone.


    Of course, since I also do some international work where I talk with women in other countires where abortion still is not legal, I can’t miss that current reality, either.

  • juliesunday

    I am as prochoice as they come and as a sex educator, totally committed to doing what it takes to ensure reproductive justice for all, but I delete about 75% of PP’s ‘action alerts’ without responding, because a significant number of them are either really just a fundraising appeal or something that, as someone who used to be a belway insider, I know are not really a problem. There are lots of action alerts sent out about machinations in Congress and in various bills that are not actually final legislation, and that frustrates me because I want my opinion as a constituent to be given when truly necessary. I also live in Texas, so I know my senators don’t give a hoot about choice issues.
    I also am currently pissed at PP for calling me–on my cell phone–to ask me for money. I pledged $50, and when I got the letter it said on the back, in small print, that they had hired a professional fundraising company to do their appeal for them. I’m sorry, but I don’t have $50 to subsidize professional fundraising–so I’m going to donate that $50 to my local NAF-affiliated abortion fund instead. I think if it appears that young women are apathetic, much of the responsibility lays with the big national organizations that aren’t speaking a language that appeals to young women. For me, I want to ensure that women who can’t afford abortion services can afford them, and that’s why I’m giving money to the abortion fund.