‘Millennial’ Misunderstandings and the Movement For Reproductive Justice

The New York Times story about a chasm between the “menopausal militia" and the “millennials” misses the mark in a sad but revealing way.

In her feature on the supposed generational divide in the pro-choice movement, which ran in Sunday’s New York Times,
Sheryl Gay Stolberg correctly observes that abortion has hit the
headlines recently in the context of health care reform and the
horrendously restrictive Stupak amendment—and it’s not something
reproductive rights advocates are happy about.  But there
isn’t much else I can relate to in her assessment of the current
landscape in reproductive rights advocacy and activism.  In
fact, I think the story—which argues that there is a chasm between the
“menopausal militia,” meaning the generation of feminists who came of
age before Roe v. Wade and view abortion in “stark political
terms,” and the “millennials,” the younger set for whom Stolberg
suggests abortion is a personal issue—misses the mark in a sad but
revealing way.

on quotes from Naral Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan,
Stolberg promotes this political/personal dichotomy without actually
explaining how this supposed shift to the personal manifests
itself—other than the fact that the post-Roe generations seem less responsive to single-issue pro-choice calls to action.  Provocative
accompanying artwork, which consists of a black rectangle with brightly
colored letters spelling “WE” floating above “ME,” implies that younger
women are selfish in neglecting abortion politics.  Yet Stolberg
acknowledges that “a clear majority of Americans support the right to
abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those
over 30 and under 30.”  In fact, she herself points to
several examples of young people organizing right now to stop the
Stupak amendment (including LSRJ’s recent webinar on abortion and
health care reform legislation).  So what’s the issue?

pollster Anna Greenberg concludes that young people don’t respond to
email alerts about contacting their legislators because they know
abortion is legal and believe “if you really need one you can probably
figure out how to get one.”  Which means not only are we selfish, but we’re also foolishly complacent.  But
what about the millions of poor women, immigrant women, and young women
who can’t ever “figure out how to get one” because the barriers we’ve
erected to accessing legal abortion are simply too high?  Such
women may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or to induce
an abortion through other means, with serious consequences for the
health and security of themselves and their families.  And
what about those of us who aren’t poor, immigrant, or under 18 but
believe deeply that how our society treats those women reflects on all
of us, individually and collectively? 

It’s true that I probably don’t respond to the action alerts that fill my inbox as often as I should.  But I resent the suggestion that my entire generation and I are indifferent.  I think the most telling part of the story is when Stolberg
characterizes coalition-building with immigrant rights and LGBT rights
group as a “tactic” to draw young people into reproductive rights
activism, as if the movement’s leaders are waging war against younger
activists.  (To be fair, it’s unclear whether Choice USA executive director Kierra Johnson used the word “tactic” or if that’s Stolberg’s spin.)  Either
way, this doesn’t leave much room to consider whether the 37 additional
years of politics played out on women’s bodies since Roe
might have led us to a more nuanced understanding of how the struggle
for reproductive freedom fits within a larger social justice frame.  Perhaps
the moms and dads concerned with comprehensive sex education for their
kids or the under-25 crowd organizing around environmental justice and
LGBT rights—all of whom are implicitly faulted for not caring enough
about abortion—simply get that single-issue activism isn’t enough.  That’s
the conclusion countless reproductive justice activists have reached,
understanding that reproductive justice will be achieved when all
people have the political, economic, and social power to make decisions
about our health, bodies, and sexuality for ourselves, our families,
and our communities.

Choice USA’s Johnson says young people are “coming at these issues in a much more complex way.”  If
so, the pro-choice movement doesn’t need to dedicate its precious
resources to running focus groups to discern how the “millennials”
think.  We should instead use those resources to support
creative and wide-reaching organizing efforts, informed by reproductive
justice values that recognize coalition-building as an inherent part of
the work, not merely a new tactic to be employed instrumentally.  And as for the New York Times, I think the idea of a generational divide along a personal/political axis unravels by the end of the piece.  The real story is why
when a majority of Americans has consistently favored abortion rights
for the last couple of decades our Congress and President are (again)
willing to sacrifice women’s health in the face of some tough politics.