‘I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying’
By Emma Goldberg
Like many young Americans, Brea Baker experienced her first moment of political outrage after the killing of a black man. She was 18 when Trayvon Martin was shot. When she saw his photo on the news, she thought of her younger brother, and the boundary between her politics and her sense of survival collapsed.
In college she volunteered for the NAACP and as a national organizer for the Women’s March. But when conversations among campus activists turned to abortion access, she did not feel the same sense of personal rage.
“A lot of the language I heard was about protecting Roe v. Wade,” Baker, 26, said. “It felt grounded in the ’70s feminist movement. And it felt like, I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying. The narrative around abortion access wasn’t made for people from the hood.”
Baker has attended protests against police brutality in Atlanta in recent weeks, but the looming Supreme Court decision on reproductive health, June Medical Services v. Russo, felt more distant. As she learned more about the case and other legal threats to abortion access, she wished that advocates would talk about the issue in a way that felt urgent to members of Generation Z and young millennials like her.
“It’s not that young people don’t care about abortion, it’s that they don’t think it applies to them,” she said. Language about “protecting Roe” feels “antiquated,” she added. “If I’m a high school student who got activated by March for Our Lives, I’m not hip to Supreme Court cases that happened before my time.”
Her question, as she kept her eyes on the court, was: “How can we reframe it so it feels like a young woman’s fight?”
On Monday the Supreme Court ruled on the case, striking down a Louisiana law that required abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, four years after deciding that an effectively identical Texas requirement was unconstitutional because it placed an “undue burden” on safe abortion access. The Guttmacher Institute had estimated that 15 states could potentially put similarly restrictive laws on the books if the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law.
The leaders of reproductive rights organizations celebrated their victory with caution. At least 16 cases that would restrict access to legal abortion remain in lower courts, and 25 abortion bans have been enacted in more than a dozen states in the last year.
“The fight is far from over,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood. “Our vigilance continues, knowing the makeup of the court as well as the federal judiciary is not in our favor.”
But interviews with more than a dozen young women who have taken to the streets for racial justice reflected some ambivalence about their role in the movement for reproductive rights.
Some, raised in a post-Roe world, do not feel the same urgency toward abortion as they do for other social justice causes; others want to ensure that the fight is broadly defined, with an emphasis on racial disparities in reproductive health.
Members of Gen Z and millennials are more progressive than older generations. They have also been politically active, whether organizing a global climate strike or mass marches against gun violence in schools.
But Gen Z women do not identify abortion as one of the most important issues to them, according to a 2019 survey from Ignite, a nonpartisan group focused on young women’s political education. Mass shootings, climate change and education rank highest. On the right, meanwhile, researchers say that opposition to abortion has become more central to young people’s political beliefs.
Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College who studies young women’s political beliefs, said that Gen Z women predominantly believe in reproductive freedom but that some believe it is less pressing because they see it as a “given,” having grown up in a world of legalized abortion.
“Myself and other activists in my community are focused on issues that feel like immediate life or death, like the environment,” said Kaitlin Ahern, 19, who was raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a community where air quality was low because of proximity to a landfill. “It’s easier to disassociate from abortion rights.”
Fatimata Cham, 19, an ambassador for the anti-gun violence advocacy group Youth Over Guns, agreed that the fight for reproductive rights felt less personal.
“For many activists, we have a calling, a realm of work we want to pursue because of our own personal experiences,” Cham said. “Growing up, abortion never came to mind as an issue I needed to work on.”
These young women recognized that while some American women can now gain easy access to abortion, millions more cannot. At least five states have only one abortion clinic.
But some said that while they considered reproductive rights an important factor in determining how they vote, they struggled to see how their activism on the issue could have an effect.
When Baker helped coordinate local walkouts against gun violence, she sensed that young people no longer needed to wait for “permission” to demand change. With abortion advocacy, she said, organizers seem focused on waiting for decisions from the highest courts.
And even as those decisions move through the courts, the possibility of a future without legal abortion can feel implausible.
“I know we have a lot to lose, but it’s hard to imagine us going backward,” said Alliyah Logan, 18, a recent high school graduate from New York City. “Is it possible to go that far back?”
Then she added: “Of course in this administration, anything is possible.”
Some millennial women who can easily and safely get abortions do not connect the experience to their political activism. Cynthia Gutierrez, 30, a community organizer in California, got a medication abortion in 2013. Because she did not struggle with medical access or insurance, the experience did not immediately propel her toward advocacy.
“I had no idea about the political landscape around it,” she said. “I had no idea that other people had challenges with access or finding a clinic or being able to afford an abortion.”
Around that time, Gutierrez began working at a criminal justice reform organization.
“I wasn’t thinking, let me go to the next pro-choice rally,” she said. “The racial justice and criminal justice work I did felt more relevant because I had people in my life who had gone through the prison industrial complex, and I experienced discrimination.”
Other young women said they felt less drawn to reproductive rights messaging that is focused strictly on legal abortion access, and more drawn to messaging about racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to abortion, widely referred to as reproductive justice.