The Graying Of The Abortion-Rights Crusade

Illustration for article titled The Graying Of The Abortion-Rights Crusade

According to Newsweek, the major abortion-rights groups are controlled by a "postmenopausal militia," activists in their fifties who vividly remember Roe V. Wade. So why aren't younger people stepping up?


Sarah Kliff writes that NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and NOW are all run by people who will retire in the next 10 years, and some are worried there aren't enough passionate young people on the pro-choice side to take their place. It's not that young people are overwhelmingly anti-abortion — according to NARAL, 61% of young people support abortion rights in either all or most cases. Rather, some think the problem may be that previous generations of abortion defenders see the issue in "black and white," while today's youth prefer shades of gray. Fetal ultrasounds have "helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being," says ex-NARAL president Kate Michelman. And NARAL pollster Anna Greenberg says, "we have to recognize the moral complexity" of abortion. But, writes Kliff,

Abortion-rights activists have traditionally hesitated on this front, viewing it as a slippery slope toward their own defeat. Instead, they often go to extremes to fend off even the smallest encroachments, opposing popular restrictions like parental-notification laws and bans on late-term procedures. Lately, though, [NARAL president Nancy] Keenan has been more convinced that NARAL must adopt a more nuanced stance. On the 35th anniversary of Roe, in 2008, she bluntly told a crowd of hundreds in Austin, Texas-the state that launched the court case-that "our reluctance to address the moral complexity of this debate is no longer serving our cause or our country well."

However, opposing restrictions like parental notification laws isn't just a matter of all-or-nothing thinking. The laws can have serious consequences for teens from abusive homes, and for minors seeking abortions, they likely don't feel like a "small encroachment." Similarly, a late-term abortion ban may seem "small" and reasonable until you're pregnant with a fetus whose catastrophic problems make late termination seem like the only option for your family. It's true that for individual women, such decisions are rarely clear-cut, and "moral complexity" is just one of the challenges abortion-seekers deal with. But a woman's right to weigh these challenges and come to her own decision may not be so complex. And in fact, young people do seem to recognize this distinction. Kliff writes that in NARAL focus groups, "young voters flat-out disapproved of a woman's abortion, called her actions immoral, yet maintained that the government had absolutely no right to intervene."

Maybe the way to reach out to youth is not to yield ground on "popular" restrictions, not to compromise with the anti-abortion side, but rather to keep the debate focused on a woman's own right to decide what is moral. Young people today are often resistant to judging others' choices, and perhaps reproductive-rights groups need to frame abortion as a personal choice worth protecting from outside judgment. The challenge then will be getting youth to defend a freedom many hope they'll never exercise.

Remember Roe! [Newsweek]


Erin Gloria Ryan

Winning the right for women to have autonomy over their bodies is a huge accomplishment. I wonder if the generation that won us the right is a little hesitant to pass the torch to the next generation? Maybe they don't trust it in our hands? I've seen little effort on the part of an older generation of feminists to really reach out and galvanize young women (and if there has been an effort, it's gone completely unnoticed by me).

I'm not trying to point fingers or re-start Feminism Off 2010; if I was part of a group of women who won an important fight, I'd also be hesitant to turn the reins over to a group of whipper snappers.