On November 28, 2009, the New York Times Sunday edition featured an editorial “In Support of Abortion, It’s Personal vs. Political” in the Week in Review. While there were some things I liked about this editorial, there was much to dislike. First and foremost being the fact that Post-Roe women are defined only by what we have NOT experienced, not defined by what we have experienced. Instead of going on and on about what bugged me about this article, I decided instead to re-write it, the way that I believe it should be written. This article reflects elements of my vision for how the changing landscape of the abortion debate should be investigated and reported. This is a work of fiction, which means I have created new lines of dialogue and quotes from actual people listed in the original article – what I wish they would say from a strength and asset-based perspective, instead of the deficit-approach featured.
“In Support of Wellbeing, Abortion Matters to Women & Families”
By Cheryl Straight Stobilt
In 1999, an airline pilot’s daughter named Aspen Baker was attending college in Northern California when she had a safe and legal abortion at a local hospital. She had been raised a pro-life Christian in Southern California and while she never believed she could make a pregnancy decision for another person, she never believed she would have an abortion herself, until she did. While she was relieved when the procedure was finally over, she found herself with a lot of difficult emotions about the experience and because of the stigma and politics surrounding her decision she was unable to find someone who would listen to her, without judgment or bias.
Today, Aspen Baker is the Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, an organization whose mission is to create a more supportive and respectful social climate around personal experiences with abortion and which runs a national, multilingual post-abortion talkline. At 33-years old, Baker is a member of what many feminist leaders call the “Third Wave,” though Ms. Baker rarely uses the term herself.
The Third Wave has been working overtime for more than a decade on issues long-ignored by the previous feminist movement, which focused almost exclusively on defending abortion rights. At the intersection of social justice and reproductive rights, Third Wave feminists fight against environmental toxins plaguing poor communities of color and the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during childbirth. Their efforts have paid off: they have policy wins on issues like comprehensive sexuality education and safe schools for LGBT youth. Recently, Third Wave feminists celebrated an important victory when they successfully advocated that the Center for Disease Control reverse a decision which forced immigrant young women to receive the HPV vaccine, something that is not even required of American citizens.
It has been nearly 37 years since Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a right to abortion, and in that time, an entire generation – including Mr. Obama, who was 11 when Roe was decided – has grown up with their own unique experiences of legal abortion in a very hostile political climate. The result is a generation of young women and families whose voices and experiences with abortion are ignored, silenced or actively manipulated for political purposes.
“Here is a generation that has only known a time when abortion has been legal,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who studies attitudes toward abortion. “For many of them, their own personal experience with abortion is more significant than what gets reflected by the rights-based political debate. So when we send out email-alerts saying “Oh my God, write to your senator,” young people wonder if there will ever be more to the dialogue than the constant recruitment to join the fight.”
Polls over the last two decades have shown 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, but the vocabulary of the debate has shifted with the political culture. Ms. Baker, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was legal, tend to view it in more nuanced terms – abortion is something many have personally experienced and yet felt silenced by the political debate over the decision and they don’t want to be a part of the problem, silencing other women. But older people tend to view it as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
The 30- to 40-somethings are concerned with educating their children about sex, and are active in causes that they believe will benefit the health and wellbeing of their children’s children – like reversing climate change and finding a cure for cancer – and the 25-and-under crowd connect more deeply to complex issues like gay marriage bans or the Darfur genocide. Given that nearly one in three of the people in these age groups have had a personal experience with abortion – either their own abortion or someone they love had one – many wonder why they don’t get politically involved in the issue. Exhale, which listens to the voices of women and men who have had abortions through their national, multilingual post-abortion talkaline, understands that the simplified political rhetoric around abortion rarely addresses the full spectrum of real, lived experiences with abortion.
“The language and values, if you are older, is around the right to control your own body, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation as empowerment,” said Ms. Greenberg, the pollster. “That is a baby-boom generation way of thinking. Now, more women have had legal abortions then women had illegal ones and each one of their experiences is unique – some have experienced a sense of empowerment and control while others have felt real emotional pain or sadness. There is no one-size-fits-all abortion experience and so continuing to talk about abortion only as right leaves behind many of those who have actually had one. And millions of women have had abortions.”
Abortion opponents were first to pick up on the negative emotional experiences many women have had with abortion and they use these experiences to make arguments against abortion. “Not only is this the post-Roe generation, I’d also call it the post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who notes that baby’s first video now occurs in the womb, often accompanied by music. “They can take the video and do the music and send it to the grandmother. We don’t even talk anymore about the hypothesis that having an abortion is like having an appendectomy. We know many women have regretted their abortions and we want to prevent more women from going through this horrible experience.”
The pressures relating to abortion had seemed, for a time, to go dormant. Mr. Obama, who campaigned on a vow to transcend “the culture wars,” even managed to win confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, without the usual Washington abortion uproar. Most of his political energy around abortion has been spent trying to forge consensus on ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.
The quiet was shattered this month, when the House — with surprising support from 64 Democrats — amended its health care bill to include language by Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, barring the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. Lawmakers who advocate for abortion rights found themselves in the uncomfortable position of voting for the larger health bill even though the Stupak language was in it.
Proponents of the Stupak language say they are simply following existing federal law, which already bars taxpayer financing for abortions. Democratic leaders want a less restrictive provision that would require insurance companies to segregate federal money from private premiums, which could be used to purchase plans that cover abortion.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and chief deputy whip of the House, understands the need for creating a new abortion dialogue that reflects people’s lived experiences and knows the real challenge of our current political climate which allowed Mr. Stupak to prevail. At 43, the mother of three children, she has taken up the abortion rights cause in Congress, as she did as a state legislator.
But if she had to round up her own friends “to go down to the courthouse steps and rally for choice,” she said, she is not certain she could. Even though abortion is incredibly common, “the stigma and politicization of the abortion issue and the simplistic, militaristic tone of the debate has left my generation and younger wanting a different approach. We want to fight for something positive and life-affirming for women and families, not just rally against hated opponents.”
That is not to say all younger women feel like they have to choose between either joining the fight or creating new ways to engage others on the abortion issue. In fact, young women are leading the way, bridging new and old models of activism on issues of reproductive justice. Serena Freewomyn (a name she adopted to reflect the idea that “I don’t belong to any man”) is a 27-year-old administrative assistant at an H.I.V. service provider in Tucson who was inspired, she said, by reading “The War on Choice” by Gloria Feldt. When George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who performed abortions, was killed in May, she started a blog, Feminists for Choice.
“I am so glad younger women have been able to come of age in a time of post-Roe v. Wade, where they have access to lots of different birth control options,” Ms. Freewomyn said. “What a great political win for feminism and the choice movement. Now, younger women are mobilizing in different ways than what people in current leadership positions are used to.”
On Wednesday, a coalition calling itself “Stop Stupak” will hold a “National Day of Action” to lobby lawmakers. It will include abortion rights advocacy groups that have sprung up in recent years to reach out to younger voters. Law Students for Reproductive Justice, founded in 2003, will host an Internet seminar to educate law students on the fine points of the House and Senate bills. There’s also Choice USA, which targets people under 30. Kierra Johnson, the group’s executive director, is pairing up with counterparts in the immigrant rights and gay rights movements — tactics she says are critical to those movements shared goals of justice, equality and dignity for all. “The same young people who are fighting to keep anti-abortion language out of the health care bills are also fighting to insure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people fit in to broader health care reform, making sure that immigrant women don’t fall through the cracks,” she said. “They’re coming at these issues in a much more complex way.”
The question now is whether the Stop Stupak coalition can succeed. Ms. Wasserman Schultz sees the debate as a chance to rouse women of all generations, and Ms. Slaughter warns that if Mr. Obama signs a bill including the amendment, it will be challenged in court. Yet, she knows, that the debate must – and will – eventually change because when “her generation is gone the new generation – which has already wracked up a slew of political victories important to women and families and is leading the way on new models of activism – will succeed in creating an abortion dialogue that reflects and supports each person’s lived experience with abortion.”
At the moment, her faith in the future is strong. “Right now, I believe we have a vision for wellbeing that women and their families from across the country will stand up to support because it is relevant to their every-day lives,” Ms. Slaughter said. “And abortion matters to women and families.”