Young People: The Most Powerful and Untapped Resource in the Battle for Reproductive Justice


With the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade a little over a month away, and the 2012 election right around the corner, I can’t help but think about the popularly speculated relationship between abortion rights and young people.

It wasn’t very long ago that the media was busy theorizing the supposed absence of young folks in the battle for reproductive health.  It’s a deafening theme that refuses to relinquish its stranglehold over the public consciousness. Scapegoating blame is much easier than taking us seriously. 

The message to young pro-choice activists around the country continues to be clear: if we aren’t organizing the way our previous generations were, on their issues, we aren’t organizing at all.

This blatantly false assumption that young people are apathetic and absent from the reproductive rights movement is unfortunately alive and kicking. And I’m not just talking about the infamous 2010 Newsweek article alleging that young women are complacent with the right-wing assault on reproductive freedom. I’m talking about the pervasive narrative written into the very fabric of our movement and the subpar attempt to rewrite that narrative.

The truth is, we may not relate to Roe in the same way that our pro-choice predecessors do, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about reproductive and sexual health. If the successful endeavor to fund comprehensive sex education and include no-cost birth control in the Affordable Care Act showed us anything, it’s that young people are more than willing to mobilize around the issues they care about.

The overarching fear perpetrated by our previous generation is that we’ve never experienced the loss of agency that occurs in a world without legal abortion services. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

My generation has witnessed the most callus and galvanized anti-abortion movement in history and we’ve seen the legal right to an abortion become meaningless in the face of insurmountable restrictions placed on young people. Teenagers are consistently denied access to truthful information about sex and sexuality. Young women across the country are being stripped of their decision-making power through parental notification and consent laws. Pharmacists are denying young women access to emergency contraception because of their “personal morality.” Crisis Pregnancy Centers are proliferating misleading information in our communities. As I write this article, Catholic Bishops are busy lobbying the President to undermine birth control access for millions of young women.

If we’re going to have a fighting chance at preventing the anti-choice insurgency from stripping away the very few rights we have left to control our own bodies, we’re going to need young people. The movement has a responsibility to prioritize our issues, not simply appease us with a few tokenizing attempts at addressing our concerns. Make no doubt about it: the anti-choice establishment is engaging young people. They’re crafting strategic language and mobilizing young people to speak in a deafening tone on college campuses around the country, while simultaneously pushing a political agenda that undermines the very health and well being of our youth.

If we don’t prioritize young people, this ship is going to sink.

The Health and Human Services Department just overruled a decision by the FDA to allow teenage girls to purchase Plan B without a prescription. We shouldn’t act surprised. Until the movement begins to centralize young people and include them in the decision-making process, those in power will continue to sell us out. Why? Because they know they can.   

There is no doubt in my mind that the reproductive rights movement can mobilize young people in record numbers. Choice USA, a leading youth-led and youth-focused reproductive justice organization, for example, is mobilizing a diverse, upcoming generation of pro-choice leaders and helping young people win on issues that matter to them in every region around the country. Youth organizations like Choice USA are changing the political landscape and empowering young people with the agency to shape reproductive rights legislation in this country.

But they can’t do it alone.

If we want to win, we have to abandon the single-issue narrative that continues to alienate young people, and instead, build a framework for our movement that is intersectional and inclusive. We have to continue talking about the war on abortion rights, but we can’t treat it as if it’s an isolated issue anymore. We have to build messages and campaigns that emphasize the connection between reproductive rights and other social justice movements like immigration and environmental justice. We need to abandon sex education that is heteronormative and treats teenage sexuality as a crisis to be controlled. Then we need to replace it with a truly comprehensive agenda that is sex-positive and empowers young people.

We need to ensure that Emergency Contraception is available over-the-counter so that all people have access, regardless of their age. We need pro-choice organizations to stop throwing events with ticket prices that young people can’t afford to pay. We need to prioritize an electoral campaign in 2012 that engages, registers, and educates young people from all walks of life on the issues they care most about.

We need to engage communities previously left behind or written off by the movement. LGBT communities. Young people. Conservative women. Men. Low-income families. People of color. We can’t afford to continue letting anti-choice extremists prey on the marginalized communities left behind by our movement.

The bottom line is simple. Either we fundamentally reshape the very framework of our movement and engage young people on the issues they care about, or we sit idly by as our opponents continue to exploit the most powerful and untapped resource in the war on reproductive rights.

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Follow Andrew Jenkins on twitter: @andrew_jenkins