Welcome to the Next Level of Abortion Restrictions

It’s time to put the old weapons away and start investing in the upcoming generation of pro-choice, reproductive justice leaders.

Welcome to the next level of abortion restrictions. Access denied image via Shutterstock

As if 72-hour waiting periods and 20-week abortion bans weren’t enough, anti-choicers are taking these restrictions one step further in 2013. They’re ushering in what I like to refer to as the next level of abortion restrictions. After spending more than 30 years chipping away at abortion access and successfully implementing some of the most extreme and dangerous restrictions at the state and local level, members of our opposition have made one thing clear: they’re just getting started.

It’s like battling a frustratingly resilient virus. Every time we get one step ahead, we end up two steps behind, and just when you think we’ve hit a restriction plateau, our opponents up the ante. 

Arkansas just passed a bill banning abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, while South Dakota just passed a bill to expand its 72-hour waiting period, which was already one of the longest in the country, in a state with only one abortion clinic.The North Dakota Senate just approved a ban on abortions after six-weeks of pregnancy, the most restrictive in the country. And in Kansas, a state House committee just passed a 70-page bill that defines life at fertilization and requires that physicians lie to their patients. Over 20 states have made a move to ban abortion coverage in the state health-care exchanges and House Republicans are already hard at work using the debate over automatic spending cuts to roll back birth control coverage in the Affordable Care Act.

And it’s only March.

Once again, our opposition is leveling up. They’ve seen what a meticulous, decentralized, and calculated strategy can do to render the constitutional right to abortion meaningless. And they’re doubling down on that strategy in 2013.

The way I see it, we have two options: We can either continue to respond to these attacks, with the same old weapons and outdated strategies, or we can make necessary changes to get a step ahead of our opposition and win some reproductive justice victories.

The latter will mean changing the way that we frame issues, including our reliance on the pro-choice paradigm. But it also means politicizing the systemic and embedded inadequacies of our current movement, as well as its leadership. We have to stop responding to oversimplified data with oversimplified solutions. We can no longer rely on an essentialist gender paradigm—one that erases the complexities of reproductive oppression—to market our issues. The inclusion of queer identities and men depends on it. And we have to stop privileging a one-dimensional narrative about privacy that ultimately undermines our fight for social services and economic equity. As long as we rely on these convenient, safe, and ultimately self-destructive narratives, I’m afraid this ship is going to sink.  

So while the conversation around discourse and rhetoric matters, talk is ultimately cheap.

It’s time to walk the walk.  

You see, abandoning the pro-choice label only has meaning as long as we also transform the underlying values and ideologies that shape our agenda and worldview. Instead of asking young people what labels they do and don’t respond to, we need to start asking ourselves a few important questions.

For instance, why is a movement invested in reproductive self-determination also shaming and stigmatizing teen parents? Why is a movement invested in young people’s health care also willing to make compromises that undermine access to birth control and emergency contraception? Why is a movement invested in winning comprehensive sex education also surrendering to the moral panic over young people’s sexuality? And why is it that “concern” for young people’s civic engagement is suddenly nowhere to be found post-election?

As long as we continue to value young people solely for their short-term utility in building outreach lists and pushing an agenda they had no say in, we’re going to miss out on a critical opportunity to change the parameters of this fight. And as long as we continue to treat young people’s specific needs and interests as less than, and thus secondary to, broader movement priorities, we’re going to see our opposition continue to push existing restrictions to the next level, year after year.

We may win a couple rounds in the interim, but we’ll do very little to uproot our opposition’s long-term strategy. I mean, we finally convinced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve emergency contraception for teens under the age of 18, only to have the Department of Health and Human Services overrule the FDA’s recommendation. We won birth control coverage in the Affordable Care Act, and yet several compromises have been instituted to roll back that very coverage.

I’m not saying that these victories are meaningless, but rather that our wins ultimately get undermined and minimized by our movement’s own shortcomings. Our failure to prioritize the needs and interests of young people has contributed to the limited scope and reach of our successes.

Like a Band-Aid on a gushing wound, the reactionary strategy of our predecessors is incapable of shifting what has become the new normal in abortion politics: seemingly mundane restrictions that, year after year, get more extreme, far reaching, and dangerous.

And while we’re stuck leveraging the same flawed strategies and narratives—rooted in the same exclusionary politics—our opposition is busy co-opting and leveraging them against us. Our reliance on a gendered language to characterize this fight has been exploited and used against us. Our ingrained reliance on privacy rhetoric has been co-opted and used against us. Our dependence on a sexless narrative to defend birth control access has been co-opted and used against us. And our appeal to the “teen pregnancy epidemic” has been co-opted and used against us. Why? Because these simplistic and expedient characterizations are rooted in the same corrupted ideologies and power structures that make reproductive oppression possible to begin with: Capitalism. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. White Supremacy.

The truth is that changing our frame only has value if we’re also invested in transforming these systems of oppression and building real power for marginalized communities.

It’s time to start telling a different narrative. 

You see, to the young activist in rural Kansas fighting for the right to be given truthful information from her doctor, hollow rhetoric matters very little. To the young queer activist in Alabama fighting for inclusive and comprehensive sex education, vacant discourse matters very little. What really counts is whether or not they have the resources and tools they need to fight for reproductive justice in their own communities.

The moral imperative in front of us is clear.

It’s time to put the old weapons away and start investing in the upcoming generation of pro-choice, reproductive justice leaders.

We need to direct advocacy and grassroots power to building strategies that back up our multimillion-dollar communications campaigns, and we need young people to be at the center of constructing and moving that strategy. We need authentic and sustainable leadership development programs that put our passion for youth leadership to the test. We need to prioritize a youth-led and youth-focused agenda that puts the needs and interests of the most marginalized individuals at the forefront of the debate.

It’s time to double down on our investment in the most powerful and untapped resource for reproductive justice.

It’s time to level up.