Last week, just in time for the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, a poll from the Pew Forum was released that showed that 56 percent of Americans under 30 don’t know what Roe v Wade is. The majority of them were pro-choice, of course, but they couldn’t connect the name of the decision that secured the right to abortion with their political support for this right. These kinds of polls are touted in the media with the hope of provoking a stereotypical response. Feminists of my generation, generation X, and older are supposed to wring our hands and decry these awful Millennials for their supposed indifference to the rights that were hard-won by their elders.
Well, I for one refuse to play that role. To my mind, it makes perfect sense that Millennials wouldn’t know the name of Roe as well as their elders. When baby boomers and gen Xers were young, “reproductive rights” was largely about the battle over whether or not this country would maintain a legal right to access abortion. But for millennials, the debate is much more expansive, complex, and bewildering than that. During their formative years, it was as much about contraception, education, and actual access to abortion as it was the right to abortion. No wonder Roe doesn’t loom as large in their world.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a quick overview of the battles that formed the millennial view of what “reproductive rights” even means, and why for this generation more than any other, it’s not just about legal abortion.
Contraception. As someone from the tail end of generation X, I can safely attest that contraception didn’t seem as big a hassle for us as it often is for millennials. When I was a teenager and a young woman, contraception was relatively cheap. If you had insurance coverage for it, your co-pay for the birth control pill was often no more than $10 or $15. If you didn’t have insurance, you just trotted yourself down to Planned Parenthood to get all the free condoms you could carry and birth control pills on a sliding income scale that usually left you paying the same $15.
For millennials, it hasn’t been that simple. The first decade of the 2000s saw as dramatic rise in the price of contraception at campus and community health centers. For many women on insurance, co-pays rose. Pills that used to only set you back $12 a month started costing $50 or more. When the government took steps to rectify this problem by requiring that contraception be offered with no co-pay to insured women, the right wing flipped out, calling one birth control advocate a “slut” and claiming that contraception coverage was some kind of great assault on religious people.
Meanwhile, the family planning clinics that gen Xers took for granted are under sustained assault. Republicans, who used to have no quarrel with subsidized contraception, have repeatedly tried to shut down the federal government to end contraception subsidies. Red states are trying to shut down family planning clinics by ending Medicaid payments to them; Texas has successfully separated thousands of women from access to their local family planning clinic. Clinics have been shutting their doors in response to funding cuts.
Contraception, which was cheap and non-controversial when my generation was young, has been fraught and expensive for millennials. Now many will get contraception without a co-pay, but the lesson that contraception is controversial has definitely sunk in.
Sex education. Sure, it’s not like sex education was great for generation X, but we did grow up in an era when the fear of HIV turned condoms from a taboo subject to something many of us were practicing putting on bananas in school. Virginity wasn’t really fetishized in the eighties and early nineties; there wasn’t much in the way of public discourse around the fundamentalist idea of “waiting for marriage”. There were no purity rings or purity balls, and our pop stars like Madonna and Prince sang about sex in vivid detail.
Millennials, on the other hand, grew up in an era when pop stars like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears bragged about their virginity, when purity rings became a “thing,” and no one was wearing a condom over her eye like Left Eye Lopez from TLC. More to the point, many of them were subjected to mandatory “abstinence-only” education instituted on a federal level by President Bush. The phrase “abstinence-only” didn’t exist when my generation was teenagers. This generation has had to defend the choice—which almost all of them make, just like generations before—to have sex in non-marital relationships in a way that would have seemed completely ridiculous to older generations.
Abortion access. While abortion access was declining in the eighties and nineties, the real crackdown made possible by Planned Parenthood v Casey really happened during the formative years of the millennial generation. For older generations, you had to walk through a bunch of protesters trying to shame you to get an abortion. For this generation, they not only get the protesters but also have to endure shaming inside the clinic, courtesy state-mandated scripts, waiting periods, and mandatory ultrasounds.
And that’s if you can find a provider. While the number of abortion providers has been declining since 1982, things started to become really dire for the generation coming of age in the past decade. Eighty-seven percent of counties now have no abortion provider, and there are only 1,793 providers, down from an early eighties high of 2,900 providers. Millennials grew up in an era where the very idea of being able to get an appointment and get an abortion without a fuss seems like a privilege of living in super-liberal areas, instead of a basic right.
This is the world of sexual health and reproductive rights that millennials grew up in. In many ways, things are looking up. The contraception mandate will make contraception much more affordable. After decades of decline, there’s been a small uptick in doctors choosing to provide abortion. Abstinence-only has been discredited, and real sex education is creeping back into schools. The sexed-up virgin pop star thing seems to have gone away. But millennials grew up in an era where “reproductive rights” was about a lot more than the legal right to an abortion. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that they aren’t quite as focused on Roe as earlier generations have been.