‘The pro-life generation’: Young women fight against abortion rights
By Ruth Graham
The rollback of abortion rights has been received by many American women with a sense of shock and fear, and warnings about an ominous decline in women’s status as full citizens.
But for some women, the decision meant something different: a triumph of human rights, not an impediment to women’s rights.
“I just reject the idea that as a woman I need abortion to be successful or to be as thriving as a man in my career,” said Phoebe Purvey, a 26-year-old Texan. “I don’t think I need to sacrifice a life in order to do that.”
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was a political victory, accomplished by lobbyists, strategists and campaign professionals over the course of decades. But it was also a cultural battle, fought by activists across the country including those in the exact demographic that abortion rights advocates warn have the most to lose in the new American landscape: young women.
Often pointed to by anti-abortion leaders as the face of the movement, a new generation of activists say they are poised to continue the fight in a post-Roe nation.
Many, but not all of them, are Christian conservatives, the demographic that has long formed the core of the anti-abortion movement. Others are secular and view their efforts against abortion as part of a progressive quest for human rights. All have grown up with once-unthinkable access to images from inside the womb, which has helped convince them that a fetus is a full human being long before it is viable.
Many believe the procedure should be banned at conception — that even the earliest abortion is effectively murder. But they embrace the mainstream anti-abortion view that women are victims of the abortion “industry” and should not be prosecuted, putting them at odds with the rising “abolitionist” wing of the movement calling for women to be held legally responsible for their abortions.
And overwhelmingly, these young women reject the notion that access to abortion is necessary to their own — or any woman’s — success.
Purvey said she supported a legal ban on abortion from conception. But she is increasingly uncomfortable with using the term “pro-life” to describe herself, because it evokes an emphasis on preventing abortions at any cost rather than on helping women. She prefers “life-affirming,” and she works at a pregnancy resource clinic in Dallas that uses the same term to describe the free and low-cost prenatal care, postpartum doula services, lactation consulting and other services offered to its primarily Black, low-income clientele.
Purvey was born in a Mexican community in South Texas. Her mother was poor and in an unstable marriage, she said, and received prenatal care from Planned Parenthood. The family later received financial and emotional support from their church, which inspired Purvey to provide help to women like her mother.
“At this point in my life, I hold the rights of pre-born children and women equally, but I consider myself a little more women-forward and women-centered,” she said. “That’s where a lot of the change happens.”
A clear majority of Americans say abortion should be legal with few or no exceptions, according to a Pew survey taken in March. Women ages 18 to 29 are significantly likelier than older women to say abortion should be generally legal and that it is morally acceptable. Just 21% of young women say that abortion should be broadly illegal, Pew found.
For the majority of American women who support abortion rights, other women’s enthusiasm for stripping away their own constitutional rights can be baffling and enraging, a profound betrayal. But overwhelmingly, young anti-abortion women view themselves as human rights activists — happy warriors on the right side of history.
“It’s always been a movement of youth,” said Kristan Hawkins, who became the president of Students for Life of America in 2006, when she was 21. She recalled a line she heard from conservative activist Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. who is a frequent presence at anti-abortion events: “When young people join your movement, you know victory is on its way.”
Hawkins’ organization — which supports a nearly total ban on abortion starting at conception and opposes oral contraceptives — now claims 1,250 groups on campuses across the country, from middle schools to graduate schools. Its signs reading “I Am the Pro-Life Generation” are ubiquitous at anti-abortion demonstrations.
Hawkins said the contemporary anti-abortion movement offers a more empowering vision to young women than abortion rights feminism does.
“This is 2022, not 1962,” she said, observing that women’s legal rights to do things like secure loans have advanced dramatically since the pre-Roe era.
If feminism tells young women they need to be able to end their pregnancies in order to achieve their educational and career goals, she said, the anti-abortion movement tells them they can have it all.
Young people have been part of the anti-abortion movement since the 1970s. The annual March for Life in Washington, held around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, now draws buses of students from around the country to what has transformed over the years into a festive youth-driven rally.
As a teenager active online, Lauren Marlowe had a hazy understanding that supporting abortion rights was what “nice” people did. But she was drawn to think differently in part because of advancements in ultrasound images. “Back then, when they looked at ultrasounds and thought it was a clump of cells, that was all they could see,” she said, referring to a phrase used by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson in a famous 1971 defense of abortion.
Marlowe, 22, the social media coordinator for Students for Life of America, launched a small line of “trendy pro-life clothes” as an undergraduate at Liberty University. The line touts a T-shirt with the word “pro-life” spelled out in the “Friends” font, and a hoodie with the cheeky slogan “Just a clump of cells.”
In Tennessee, Kailey Cornett, 28, said she anticipated that her work as CEO of Hope Clinic for Women, a “life-affirming” center that provides services and support to pregnant women, would grow busier in a post-Roe landscape. Tennessee has a trigger law that is expected to go into effect by mid-August and will ban abortion in nearly all cases, including rape and incest.
Cornett received what she experienced as a life calling from God while attending a Christian youth convention as a teenager: to “love on” young women facing unplanned pregnancies. She volunteered at a pregnancy resource center in Arizona in high school and pursued a degree in nonprofit management with the goal of leading one.
Reading progressive Christian writer Sarah Bessey’s book “Jesus Feminist” showed her that her faith and her care for women did not have to be in tension. “Oh, my gosh, I can be both,” she recalled. “It turns out I was a feminist the whole time, but I had this wrong definition of it.”
Young women whose activism is not connected to religious belief are relative newcomers to the movement, where they make up a small but boisterous niche.
Kristin Turner started a chapter of a youth climate group in her hometown, Redding, California. Her Instagram bio includes her pronouns (she/they) and support for Black Lives Matter. She describes herself as a feminist, an atheist and a leftist.
At 20, she is also the communications director for Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, whose goals include educating the public about “the exploitative influence of the Abortion Industrial Complex through an anti-capitalist lens.”
Recently, she started a punk band called the EmbryHoez with a friend in San Francisco. One of their songs is called “The Hotties Will Dismantle Roe”:
They say it’s empowerment / They say it’s women’s rights / But all I see’s oppression / And might makes right.
Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, founded last year, emphasizes “direct action,” including “pink-rose rescues,” in which activists enter abortion clinics to distribute roses attached to anti-abortion information.
“If someone is committing violence against another human being,” Turner said, “then property lines should not be respected.” She said she has been arrested three times in activist settings, include twice performing “rescues.”
“The reality is, people are dying,” she said. “I think that whatever privilege I have, I need to use that and leverage it.”