From Another Young Woman: The Reproductive Rights Movement Must Look Forward, Not Backward


Last month’s New York Times article about a generational divide in the reproductive rights movement told a familiar story. Some iteration of this narrative-whether the divide is between pre- and post-Roe women in the pro-choice movement or older and younger feminists more generally-flares up regularly. And in the generational back-and-forth that predictably follows, a chance to thoughtfully consider the direction of the pro-choice movement is often lost.

In the face of older women wringing their hands over the future of the movement, inevitably a chorus of young women who are working every day for reproductive rights cries out, "Hey! Remember us!?" As one of these young women, I understand the indignation; it’s a slap in the face to be told the work you do is invisible or insufficient.

But it’s also just laughable that anyone actually involved in the movement would fail to the see the scores of young women (and men) who make up its ranks. You only have to look as far as the Stop Stupak Day of Action in DC on December 2nd, where the baby boomers were a small, though respected, minority within a sea of young activists. (And if you weren’t there, just check out NARAL Pro-Choice New York’s video of the day, made by my fellow 23-year-old colleague.)

And, indeed, those who lament the apathy of today’s youth are quick to assure the indignant young activists, "Well, of course, we didn’t mean you!" And they go on to cite the anecdotal evidence and polling which suggests that generally young women today are more conflicted about abortion, or take their reproductive rights for granted, or are less strident in their pro-choice beliefs.

I’m sure there is truth to that. No doubt my generation views abortion-along with many other issues-differently than our mothers do. That seems so obvious it almost goes without saying. And, as Jennifer Senior explores in her recent New York Magazine article, while public opinion on abortion has remained remarkably consistent over the years, there seems to be some evidence that today’s 18-29 year olds are the least pro-choice bunch to come along in generations.

Certainly, we should thoughtfully examine the changing attitudes towards reproductive rights and the numerous ways abortion politics have changed in the last three decades. But to just attribute these generational differences to whether or not we remember the days when abortion was illegal and urge young people to heed the warnings of their elders about the importance of reproductive rights is simplistic, counterproductive, and profoundly limiting to the movement.

As Rose Afriyie of Feministing points out, when older feminists claim young women take their reproductive rights for granted, they tend to imply that abortion restrictions are a thing of the past. And in doing so, they erase the experiences of countless women-especially young women, low-income women, and women of color-who still lack true access to abortion. A teenager who needs parental consent from her conservative, anti-choice family can’t take her right to abortion for granted. A woman without a means of transportation in Mississippi, where there is only one abortion provider in the entire state, can’t take it for granted. A poor woman whose Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion under the Hyde Amendment can’t take it for granted. There’s no need to travel back to 1972 to find appalling proof that reproductive rights in this country are anything but secure.

And while this "back in the day" narrative is alienating to the women whose reproductive rights are not fully realized, it is also unlikely to resonate with the white, liberal, middle-to-upper-class young women (like myself) who do-and for the most part can-assume they can get an abortion if they ever need one.

Horror stories of back-alley abortions in pre-Roe days were no doubt powerful and transformative experiences for many older women. And the reality that the anti-choice movement would like to return to those days (as highlighted by the thought-provoking message of the How Much Time campaign) serves as a stark reminder of both how far we’ve come and how easily we could slip backwards. But the days of illegal abortion don’t and-hopefully-never will speak to the immediate, personal experiences of most of today’s youth. No matter how terrifying it was, the past is often just too distant and too abstract to spur young people to action.

Furthermore, by touting the memory of illegal abortion as the defining motivation for reproductive rights activism, we miss the chance to attract potentially sympathetic young people who come at these issues from different starting points to the cause. Instead of lecturing young people about the importance of abortion rights, we must do a better job of connecting abortion to the other issues-comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, support for pregnant teens, domestic violence and rape, LGBTQ rights, etc.-that are part of achieving true sexual and reproductive justice. Not because abortion rights are any less fundamental than they were 35 years ago, but because if we don’t acknowledge and legitimize the many different angles that may draw in today’s diverse younger generation, we limit the power of our movement.

But to do so, we must give voice to young people’s own experiences-from 2009, not 1969. We must meet young people where they are and learn-directly from them-what issues are most relevant to their lives. And we must invite them to speak for themselves so that the youth who are apathetic or entitled hear from their own peers why the fight for reproductive justice is still so urgent. Thankfully, there are a lot of great organizations out there doing just that.

Above all, as a movement, we must articulate a positive vision for the future. Relying on the fear of a return to a harrowing past is not enough. Fear can be a powerful motivator at times but it will never sustain lasting activism-especially among young people. If the reproductive rights movement is to remain relevant to the next generation it must, like all good progressive movements, be forward-looking. It must offer young people the chance to re-imagine the world.

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