Do Young Women Care About Abortion Rights?

Conventional wisdom among women of a certain age holds that young U.S. women aren’t concerned about preserving the rights we fought so hard to secure–especially the right to abortion. Since abortion has been legal their entire lives, the reasoning goes, young women take it for granted. A friend recently told me, “We’ve done our work, now it’s up to them to make sure it’s not lost.”

I’ve been hearing this received wisdom for quite some time, but I’m not sure it’s true. If it is, what can be done to build cross-generational bridges to make sure this right is protected?

A May 2009 Gallup poll seems to bolster the view that support for abortion has been slipping among all young people between the ages of 18 and 29. It reached a high of 36 percent in the early 1990s and fell to 24 percent in 2009. The same poll showed that 23 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 believe that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances,” up from14 percent in the early 1990s.

However, another look at the same poll finds that 24 percent of the same cohort believes abortion should be “legal under any circumstances” and 51 percent think it should be “legal under certain circumstances.” Reading it another way, 75 percent of adults aged 18-29 do not think abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances,” which is a good starting point for us build on.

Developing polls is an art, not a science and polling is sometimes influenced by the politics of the day and the politics of the pollsters. While I can’t accept Gallup’s conclusions wholeheartedly, it’s clear that we nonetheless have to continue to move those numbers in a pro-choice direction.

I’m hopeful this can be done because of personal experience. I attended the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. My niece, then a coed, marched, as did her mother and a million other pro-choice supporters. I marched alongside people from all over the country, of all ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and political persuasions. But I was especially struck by the huge number of young people, women and men, often in student groups. They were as enthusiastic and committed as I had been at their age. They struck me as being every bit as concerned about preserving the right to choose as my veteran feminist friends and I were.

I’m also hopeful because of the number of young women who will be attending the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. this weekend. Sponsored by the Feminist Majority Foundation, this ambitious gathering will tackle campus organizing, international family planning, lesbian and gay rights, human trafficking, violence against women and the issue I’ll be there specifically to follow–reproductive rights.

The goal of the conference is to encourage and prepare young women to become the social and political leaders for their generation. I’ll be there as an observer, since I can’t convince anyone that I’m a young feminist anymore, but I’m going to talk to some of these young leaders about the challenges they see and the lessons they’ll take back to their campuses. I’ll report back to you from Washington, D.C.

I know you probably have a few questions of your own. Please add them to the comments on this page and I’ll include some of the answers in my next post.

Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/16339684@N00/ / CC BY 2.0.

Comments

  1. I think that part of the problem has been the focus on abortion and not much else by many of the women who came before us. Our older feminist mentors keep admonishing us with tales of coat hangers, and then are disappointed when that fails to motivate us.

    We need to rebrand the feminist and prochoice movements. Our new rallying cry should be reproductive justice. The truth is that abortion is available for women with money, and likely will remain so even if Roe v Wade is overturned. It is the poor that currently do not truly have access, and we need to focus on the injustice of that. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s available. I think that changing our focus from choice to justice might help bring in more young people, especially if we focus our work on the lives of women in general. Women deserve not only choice in whether or not to continue a pregnancy, but also choice about when, where, and how to get pregnant, and how to give birth. We need to talk about access to midwifery services, VBAC, and informed decision-making about caesarian sections.

    If we widen the lens to make the issue more relevant to all women, and help young women understand the true challenges poor women face even after Roe, we will have more success.

  2. Re: Sharon, I absolutely agree that even though abortion is legal it’s unavailable and inaccessible for many women, particularly low income women. I like the term reproductive justice. People don’t generally think of reproductive issues in terms of fairness or equity, but of course it is supremely unjust that only women of means can exercise their rights, whether it’s to an abortion, a midwife, contraception or birthing. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  3. It does become tiresome, as a younger activist, to have one’s commitment constantly questioned and even mocked by older folks. I see this in many movements but nowhere as consistently and meanspiritedly as in the feminist movement. I’m very happy that those of my generation (post second-wave–I’m in my 40s) have been able to forge ties and alliances with the women younger than us. I wish those older than us worked a little harder at it.

  4. TheRedDuke says:

    I hate the term feminist. Like it’s some activist niche group. I’m not “pro-women”–that should be a given. I’m anti-female-discrimination.

    So I’ll take “anti-sexist”.

  5. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I attended the march for women’s lives because I am a young woman with epilepsy. Growing up having to work for control over my neurological system had taught me the fundamental necessity of having self-control over my reproductive system at all times. This is a non-negotiable issue.

    I think movement leaders should listen to us and our experiences/perspectives about why we are pro-choice.

  6. Re: BK – I am so sorry that you feel younger women are mocked and constantly questioned by older folks (my generation). One of my goals in this blog is to connect young feminists with “old” feminist, to cross the generational divide, learn from each other and work together to protect our rights.

  7. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I have no problem calling myself a feminist. But like BK said, older feminists have a nasty habit of ignoring activisim which isn’t quite theirs.

    And I know it comes from the historical pattern of society not recognizing women’s accomplishments and current presence/influence. So wanting to ensure that accomplishments which a group made is important.

    But at some point, it becomes ageism–by failing to respect the perspectives of other women and feminist activists, even if they aren’t exactly your own/your friends.

  8. Carolina Constituent says:

    Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. ~Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

    Yes, I'm seventeen year old young woman with a radical notion.
    I've never been pregnant, I'm at the top of my class, I'm the editor of my school newspaper, I'm an intern, an employee, a volunteer, a girlfriend to a boyfriend, I may or may not keep my last name, I may or may not have children, I will fight for all of my rights, and I will use my voice to it's fullest.

  9. katiebelle says:

    I was really excited to read this article. As an 18 year old female feminist I'm often struck by how many women my age are actually rather sexist towards themselves and other women. I don't think enough people know about how many young feminists are actually out there. I know some rather nasty connotations have been tacked on to the label 'feminist' but I always try to inform people of their misconceptions when I get the chance. I always hope that I've been able to change at least one person's view of the feminist movement, and let them know (among other things) that there are many young people (female and male) who are feminists. I'm so glad you wrote an article addressing this issue, I think it gives me yet another tool to show others an accurate picture of the feminist movement.

  10. I can't help finding this article frustrating. I'm a 25 year old lesbian AND I vocally support a woman's right to choose. I was talking to an older woman recently at a Pro-Choice march and she said she told everyone woman she knew about the march, but few seemed to even understand why they should be outraged! One actually responded with, "I'm a lesbian."

    So? I don't care what your gender identity, sexuality or age is– a world without the right to choose is devastating to ALL, especially to our children. As a woman, I feel compelled to stand up with my fellow feminists and fight for the right to manage our own bodies.

    Also at this march? A young boy, no more than age 7 and an 18 year old Catholic high school student. It's true that there are many young people out there who don't care about politics, culture wars, or the ongoing fight to end sexism. Many, however, do care and are some of our most passionate allies.

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