By Kierra Johnson
The more I sit and consider what the Roe v. Wade decision means at 40 years, the more I am sure that it actually means the same thing now as it did then.
The fight for abortion rights is not, nor has it ever been, about vaginas or babies. It is about power, quality of life, and the role of government. The right to own property, the right to vote, the right to contraception as married and then as single people, the right not to be sterilized, the right not to be enslaved and treated as baby-making machines were all legal battles that women fought and won. Winning the legal right to abortion is but one more of the battles that made it possible for a woman to get a little closer to full autonomy over her body and her mind.
In 2013, the fight for power and agency continues.
Having been born after 1972, I am among the millions of people spared from witnessing the results of back alley abortions firsthand. And yet, like many of my peers and those of the generation that came after, I found myself drawn to do this work. The nostalgia for the 70s is not what propelled me to do my first research about NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Concern about my potential future need of abortion didn’t get me to an informational meeting of the Colorado NARAL. I respected Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm (and still do) as amazing leaders, but I didn’t aspire to be them or be like them.
It was my 16-year-old sister’s unplanned pregnancy and her decision to parent that catapulted me into this work.
Every day, young women and men call Choice USA’s office, visit a campus table, stumble onto our tumblr or facebook, attend a workshop or speaking engagement. They come to us waving many identity banners: Latina, progressive, Baptist, independent, environmentalist, social justice activist, queer, black, immigrant, anti-abortion,Democrat, Catholic. Some are parents, some are in relationships, many are determined to go to or finish school, most of them fear that there may not be a job waiting for them on the other side. Some have had an abortion and many more haven’t. What they all have in common is a unique story set in the 21st century about the real barriers they face as they attempt to access information, medication, and services.
The question isn’t what does Roe mean at 40. The question is who is the new Roe?
In 2013, the new Roe is fighting to keep the only clinic open in Mississippi. The new Roe is in Steubenville, Ohio, fighting for the right to decide when, how, and with whom to have sex. The new Roe is 15 and is wondering if he will get suspended for distributing condoms in his high school. The new Roe is 16 battling parental notification in 38 states. The new Roe is 17 and pleading with HHS to stop denying her access to emergency contraception. The new Roe is 27 and is on Medicaid demanding that she be given the means to make decisions about her body and her family — whether that means to raise another child or to have an abortion. The new Roe has a female partner and is denied the right to parent in Florida.
Liberation and self-determination is the story. Each decade brings with it a new context for this story. Young people today have what I would argue is a more difficult task than that of the activists in 1972. They are tasked with winning a war that has technically already been won — but their battles are incremental, convoluted, and defensive, as they fight to hold onto what was won 40 years ago.
Many of the issues remain the same — contraception, abortion, sex education — but the context of the fight has changed and the warriors are employing new strategies and tactics. Ultraviolet, Sex Etc., and Scarleteen are changing the way young people tell their stories, report on injustice, and hold decision-makers and corporations accountable. But young people are also still employing the strategies of our foremothers. Young people in Kansas are heading to Topeka to lobby their representatives about anti-choice bills. Students at Bowling Green University are organizing for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Advocates in Alabama are working with the state’s department of education to create sex-ed that acknowledges the existence of LGBTQ students.
Is abortion the single defining issue of young people’s activism? No, and that may be the biggest difference of the current generation. The new reproductive justice advocate doesn’t work from a single-issue frame, but instead finds their way to sexual and reproductive health and rights through their commitment to immigrant rights, fair labor laws, environmental justice, or LGBTQ equality. Access to healthcare and the ability to make decisions about one’s body are a basic building block for all these movements. It is a new point of entry that should be seen as an opportunity to invest a broader base rather that a divestment in women’s rights.
The 19-year-old activist may or may not know who Norma McCorvey is, but the values held by activists fighting for women’s rights in the 70s are alive and well today. Young people are on a quest to learn how to leverage their personal and political power. They are grappling with how to create a government that better reflects progressive values and one that has a commitment to ensuring a better quality of life, true liberty, and the pursuit of and access to happiness.
Maybe 2013 can be the year we stop looking back to Roe and start looking forward to the policies that can expand sexual and reproductive health for the next 40 years. We could make this the year we introduce proactive measures and slow the endless cycle of fending off attacks. It could be the year we stop funding for ineffective abstinence-only programs and support the Real Education for Healthy Youth act. It could be the year we refuse to allow fiscal panic to chip away at funding for family planning. It could be the year we stop conceding to bans on public funding for abortion care, because a choice one cannot afford is no choice at all.
If we do these things today, activists 40 years from now may or may not remember 1973, but they will surely remember 2013 as a turning point.