Activists Discuss the Future of Abortion Rights

Earlier this month, NEWSWEEK published ++an article on what’s been called the “graying” of the abortion-rights movement++:[[]] the idea that older women are promoting the cause while younger women are uninvolved. It’s a concern that’s been raised before and that left younger pro-choice activists asking, “What about us?” What resulted was a spirited and informative debate online, where abortion rights activists of all ages discussed what role younger women play in the movement and what the future of that movement looks like.

We invited leaders from established pro-choice groups, newer organizations, and prominent online voices to continue that conversation together. Over the course of two days, they discussed the issues raised by the article over e-mail. An edited transcript follows:

Nancy Keenan, president, ++NARAL Pro-Choice America[[]]++: There are quite a few questions for all of us to mull over, but I’d like to start off with saying that I’ve read a lot of what’s been written since the NEWSWEEK article first appeared. Above all, I think this discussion is healthy and necessary for the pro-choice community—and I look forward to continuing this dialogue today.

The primary purpose of the ++research project referenced in NEWSWEEK[[]]++ is to move the conversation forward. It’s clear that many young people are already part of this movement, but the younger voters (women and men) we talked to in this project were not the ones who already are engaged in the reproductive-rights movement. We wanted to listen and learn from those voters who may never volunteer or attend a rally or share any choice-related material on Facebook. We need to know how best to persuade these voters to connect their personal views and experiences around reproductive choice with the ++political (voting).++[[]] Right now, that connection doesn’t exist. And this work doesn’t take away from our efforts to listen and learn from existing younger activists who are already part of NARAL Pro-Choice America and our many sister organizations.

That brings me to the question of how established groups can work with emerging groups. I think it’s essential. No one group or one person can do everything. We need political organizers (online and on the ground), more abortion providers, and the intellectual force of writers and commentators to accomplish what we seek to achieve for women. How we cultivate even more new leadership in all of these areas should spur new thinking, and I am open to hearing these ideas and sharing some examples of what I’ve heard in previous discussions on this topic.

Erin Matson, action vice president, ++National Organization for Women++[[]]: [The NEWSWEEK] article was hardly the first time the media has made sweeping conclusions about the uncaring, unknowing young women who just have no idea they must defend Roe v. Wade—and the alleged failure of the women’s movement to connect with the millennial generation—without asking a single young woman for her opinion.

In its most simple, pure form, I am hopeful this conversation will serve as a loud lesson to the media: Young women are fully capable of speaking for ourselves. It’s irresponsible reporting to talk about us without talking to us. Due to the overwhelming frequency of this sloppy reporting, I believe after sharing their opinions about the future of the movement, older abortion rights leaders now must take responsibility to provide referrals to young leaders.

Ironically, yesterday [April 25] was the sixth anniversary of the March for Women’s Lives, the largest demonstration in our nation’s history. More than a third of the 1.15 million marchers for full reproductive justice, including abortion rights, were under the age of 25. I was one of them. At the time I was 23 and the youngest president in the country of a state NOW chapter.

Millennial women like me—and I am hardly a special exception if you focus on the substance of my views and how I’m willing to work for them rather than my title—have been trying to get the media’s attention for some time. I believe the dialogue around abortion rights must change and is changing, and I’m proud to be a part of it—both in the streets and online.

Edith Sargon, National Field Director, ++Choice USA[[]]++: Young people have been at the forefront of abortion-rights activism for years. In the 1960s and ’70s, young people were developing a movement that was relevant to them. Today, young people are developing a movement that is relevant to us. We are coming to the issues with unique perspectives, drawing from our lived experiences.

As we speak, young people are taking up the fight on the ground in their communities. Students in Michigan are strategizing to pass legislation that will regulate the advertising of crisis-pregnancy centers that have sprung up near campus and in their local community. Youth in Florida organized a drive to send handwritten letters to their members of Congress to include abortion rights and comprehensive sexuality education in health-care reform. Young people in Arizona are speaking out against the abuses that detained immigrant women face.

I’m interested to hear how other organizations are engaging young people at the local level. How are you discovering what’s important and relevant to young people? And what are you doing as national organizations to reflect those priorities?

Amanda Marcotte, blogger,[[]]++: The NARAL data NEWSWEEK used to raise the alarm about young women not caring enough about abortion rights seemed flawed to me right off the bat. After all, NARAL polled young people, and yet only women are held accountable for fighting for reproductive rights. When the anti-choice side pulls energy from both men and women who are eager to halt sexual liberation and control female bodies, and pro-choicers can only look to women, we’re already running at half capacity.

The problem of “graying” has been with us for a long time now. Long enough that the women graying now were the ones who were considered indifferent and uncaring in the past. We can’t assume that people’s attitudes about abortion are static. Many a college-age woman snarls about women who have abortions and casts judgment, only to find herself learning a little about life and the hard choices you make. I’ve spoken to many women who were the judgmental young women portrayed in the article but who are now stalwart pro-choice activists.

I’m not overly worried. The perception that the status quo is safe, the relative lack of energy from pro-choice men, the ease of leaping to judgment in your youth all work against having an energetic base of young women fighting for reproductive rights. Despite all these obstacles, there are many. After all, in the original NEWSWEEK article, Nancy Keenan wrung her hands in worry about where all the young women were. And then she looked at her organization and found they constituted more than 60 percent of NARAL.

NEWSWEEK: It’s obvious that there is a lot of engagement online amongst women who support abortion rights, and that an article like the one we published will create a digital roar from women who want to be counted. Is there a big difference between online abortion activism and what was done in the past: are younger women more likely to write a blog post than write their congressperson? Or are they writing blog posts now where 20 years ago they’d have done nothing? What is the net effect of the burgeoning pro-choice movement online? Is it a change in approach—targeting individuals rather than lawmakers or corporations—or is it just a change of medium?

Meg Massey, blogger at ++Feminism 2.0[[]]++: On the whole, millennials are probably more comfortable working through online grassroots channels than more “official” capacities, such as a letter to a congressperson (although younger women do engage in these activities, too, and they’re not mutually exclusive. A “retweeted” message may ask pro-choicers to call congressperson X about a bill, for instance). Blogging, tweeting, posting articles on Facebook—this is the ideas marketplace for millennials, and that’s going to shift how younger people get involved in politics overall.

I think the relative disconnect between the online millennial/Gen Y pro-choice activism and that of more established national pro-choice/women’s groups is that we haven’t been as effectively engaged by them as we could be. Thanks to the Internet and Web 2.0, political activism as a whole is changing, and I don’t think feminist groups are alone in trying to figure out how best to engage a generation who engages on issues in different mediums and sometimes thinks about the issue in a different framework than the older generation.

Amanda’s right that we need to involve more pro-choice men, and that our activism at the local level needs to be recognized, engaged with, and built upon at the national level (health care and the Stupak amendment is a good, though frustrating, example of this).

Sarah Erdreich, author and activist: Nancy mentioned the need to engage people who are not already in the reproductive-rights movement. What I learned from interviewing dozens of younger activists and providers is that they weren’t always active in the pro-choice movement—or even identified as pro-choice—until they learned more about what abortion meant and how important the right to choose really is. There was no one way that people gained this education—some had personal experience, some were inspired by classes in college—but they were all amazed by how difficult it can be to access good, affordable abortion care in this country.

So the challenge as I see it is to reach more people like these activists and providers who might be casually pro-choice but think that since they’ve grown up with legal abortion, that will never change. I think that one step in this process is to normalize abortion: to share the stories of not just the women who choose the procedure but also the men who also have personal abortion experiences; the clinic directors and employees; the providers and other medical professionals; the attorneys, volunteers, and educators who work in the field. Their stories don’t just humanize the choice, but they also show the larger context in which abortion rights reside, and the many reasons that a woman would choose abortion. It’s very easy to lose sight of what exactly is at stake here, and telling the stories is a poignant and immediate reminder of how much will be lost if states continue to enact restrictive laws and if anti-choice bills are passed at the federal level.

I think that this is something new organizations are much more comfortable with, but established groups have the name recognition and trust that their supporters and more neutral participants will take them seriously as well. So either way, there’s a lot of potential.

Sargon of Choice USA: There is a bigger pattern of undervaluing and even undermining the work of young people, of suggesting that young people are apathetic or disconnected. These assumptions about youth distract from our work.

As a youth-focused organization, Choice USA has worked hard to engage and work with young people around issues of reproductive justice. We value shared power and authority, collaboration and partnership, constituent-specific strategies and learning, and a youth-controlled agenda. By having youth on our board and staff, by allowing our members to prioritize the issues we work on, by crafting messaging and programs that speak to the needs of young people, and by creating systems for leadership development, we are building a movement that is both relevant and sustainable.

Certainly, young people are constantly engaging in online activism, and we meet them there, too. At the same time, we’ve found that young people want to engage offline as well, whether that is through writing legislators or holding teach-ins or taking to the streets. Young people bring new perspectives, sustained energy, and forward momentum that go well beyond the virtual world.

Matson of NOW: To build on a few others’ points, it’s important for the women’s movement to broaden its self-definition to include young women (and men—great point) who use online technology to share stories, apply pressure directly, or organize people to apply pressure in person.

Edith brought up the intersectional work she is seeing around the country. For example, young abortion-rights activists in Arizona are also speaking out against the horrific brutality against women in immigrant detention centers. Reproductive justice is something we understand to include much more than access to abortion: also the full and unencumbered opportunity to raise children. Reproductive justice includes supporting lesbian couples who raise children. Reproductive justice includes rejecting health disparities for women of color, including access to care. It’s positive and proactive—young activists understand that being brown is not a crime, having a uterus is not a social issue, and love is not a sexual orientation—and we like to approach all the issues at once.

Think of the stark contrast between this frame and the way abortion rights are often referred to something to be protected from harm. The dominant frame around abortion speaks to an experience that is negative. It speaks to fear. It speaks to the past. Save Roe; Remember Roe; We Won’t Go Back; Protect Women’s Rights; Defend Choice; even Stop Stupak.It’s as if everything important has already been done. If you do not act, things will go back to the way they were. Abortion rights are so often framed as part of the past instead of what they are—our futures.

Keenan of NARAL: Amanda and Meg both make compelling points about the need to broaden our reach. The tools are ever changing, and we need to keep up with those changes as we try to invite even more people to our movement.

I agree with Amanda’s point about needing men to become more vocal on our issue–she’s right on point. The perception is that men are the loud, boisterous, and ever-present faces of the anti-choice movement (Mike Huckabee, Randall Terry, Rick Santorum), while women are the leaders of the pro-choice movement. And yet, if we are to win in the political arena, we simply cannot move pro-choice legislation, defeat anti-choice attacks, and protect Roe v. Wade unless we engage both genders.

That’s why our research included focus groups with men. We need all voters—women and men—to connect their personal experiences or the experiences of women in their lives to the political action of voting pro-choice. That’s our next step in this research project.

Massey of Feminism 2.0: I want to second what Sarah said about the need to normalize abortion and share stories.

I think the myriad challenges that continue to face American women from all walks of life—from equal pay and family-friendly workforce policies to cultural representations of women—can be boiled down to the core value of wanting to be trusted with the tools to define ourselves and make our lives what we wish. Access to legal abortion, if we so choose, is a central part of this; for those who are unsure about where they stand, placing it in context with the other decisions we need to make for ourselves as we map out our futures is a message that I think resonates strongly among younger women.

Sargon of Choice USA: Erin is right on about the need to look at how we’re framing the message. Young people may not have experienced the tragedies that led to Roe, but we are experiencing our own obstacles to reproductive health. Young people are unable to afford birth control. Young people are being misinformed by abstinence-only programs. Young women are being recruited to be egg donors with little or no information. Young people are discriminated against for their sexual orientation and gender identity. Young people are one of the largest uninsured populations. Young people are the target of misleading crisis-pregnancy-center ads. The list goes on. These are the experiences and stories that motivate young people to work for reproductive justice. Messages, programs, and strategies that reflect this will better engage them. As national organizations, we oftentimes get stuck in research and polling when we need to use that research to inform how we act and to build the movement.

Massey of Feminism 2.0: Agreed. There’s a tendency among women’s organizations and some media organizations to assume that because we youngsters grew up in an era of legal abortion, we have no grasp of what it means to go “back to the Dark Ages.” But having to endure moralizing from pharmacists when we pick up birth-control prescriptions, drive across state lines to find a clinic, see our tax dollars fund inaccurate abstinence-only sex ed, and risk being denied access to emergency contraception doesn’t exactly put us in a period of enlightenment. That’s why Erin’s point about not framing pro-choice issues as relics of the past that we must preserve like antiques is so important. I think the pro-choice movement has been successful, particularly among millennials, when we’ve pulled back the curtain on the anti-non-procreative-sex attitude among many prominent abortion opponents.

Erdreich: I wonder if one way to engage younger men is to do a better job framing the pro-choice movement as an equality movement. Many of the examples given here about how legal abortion fits into a broader framework of comprehensive sex education, access to [emergency contraception] and birth control, and discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender identity affect men as well, but it seems that the pro-choice movement hasn’t historically made that a focus of its messaging. I think that changed somewhat in the response to the Stupak amendment, but building on the idea that reproductive justice affects both genders could benefit the pro-choice movement.

Keenan of NARAL: Meg’s example about pharmacy refusals is right on. Let me tell you, when we started going after CVS, RiteAid, and Walmart for allowing policies that would delay women’s access to birth control, the activism was off the charts.

Our messaging needs to communicate a vision forward, and I think sometimes we hold too close to the past. And sometimes referencing a court case that happened nearly 40 years ago misses the experiences of those we are trying to reach (in this case, younger voters).

Sargon of Choice USA: It sounds like we are all on a similar page about transforming our messaging (and I’d add programs, structures, and strategies) to reflect the needs of young people. We need to discover ways to do this most effectively.

One solution goes back to NEWSWEEK’s original question: How can both established groups and new organizations work together toward a shared goal? Organizations that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s need to rely and call upon organizations with a focus and expertise on young people. This will allow us to develop a consistent and well-informed message that will undoubtedly engage young people.

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