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 from 14 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.

See more Ms. coverage on abortion. 


Not the singer/songwriter Carole King. Been a feminist for as long as I can remember and committed to reproductive rights even longer.