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Women, Listen to Your Mothers

Kathleen Reeves

Because of the tremendous work done in the 60s and 70s, my generation can sit around and have conversations about our feelings about abortion. But we need to remember that what matters politically is the legal right to have an abortion, without which these conversations are moot.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes (with characteristic brilliance) on the abortion-activism generational divide. Her finding: the post-Roe generation gets less worked up about the right to choose “not because younger women are any less supportive of abortion rights than their elders, but because their frame of reference is different.”

I think she’s nailed it. I don’t believe that my generation is more pro-life than my mother’s generation, but I’m not sure that we understand what’s at stake. We’ve grown up in a time and place in which it’s unthinkable that any of us seeking an abortion would be told, No. No way.

The difference between the generations—and it’s both our blessing and our curse—is that my generation has the luxury of thinking about abortion in a more complicated way.  What are my feelings about abortion?  How can we fine-tune pro-choice rhetoric to reflect the complexity of abortion?

Obama is clearly engaged with these questions, as he often talks about abortion as a troubling moral issue—and famously, in The Audacity of Hope, referred to the "middle-aged feminist who regrets her abortion." Obama’s acknowledgement that there’s something “dark” about abortion may have paid off: while he’s still assailed as “pro-abortion” by prominent anti-choice groups, he received some surprising endorsements from the pro-life community during his campaign, including the high-profile support of Doug Kmiec (who paid for his support by being publicly vilified by his priest and refused Communion).

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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It’s good to think about anything, including abortion, in a serious, nuanced way. But abortion needs to be legal for us to have the freedom to have these discussions. Abortion will not be a complicated personal choice if the anti-choicers currently flexing their muscles in Congress have their way: it will be illegal.

So, yes, I am frustrated with my generation’s attitude towards reproductive choice. Many of us seem to be neglecting the political reality of abortion: that it’s only been a federally-protected right for thirty-five years. Stolberg points to this, quoting Nancy Keenan:

Ms. Keenan, who is 57, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was illegal, tend to view it in stark political terms — as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But younger people tend to view abortion as a personal issue, and their interests are different.

Abortion is a personal issue—but legally, it’s either a protected right, or it’s not. We need to remember that what matters politically is the right to have an abortion. Since young women take that right for granted, we talk about other things: how we feel about abortion, if we’d haveone, if we think our daughters or sisters should have one, etc. We can say, “Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion,” or—something I hear often from pro-choice women my age—“I don’t particularly like abortion.”

Yes, it’s understood that not everyone likes abortion or would choose to have one: that’s why it’s so important that the choice is private, and that the government is involved only insomuch as it protects that choice. Because of the tremendous work done in the 60s and 70s, we can all sit around and have conversations about our feelings about abortion. These are valuable conversations, but they’re not legally relevant. We have them because we assume that the legal status of abortion is stable.

But with Congress on the verge of drastically curtailing our abortion rights—particularly, the rights of those with limited financial means—young women need to start talking in terms of those rights. It’s time for us to take a lesson from our mothers, who understood that the only way to ensure that abortion is a “personal issue” is by protecting the right to choose, period. The “menopausal militia,” as Nancy Keenan calls the warriors for abortion legalization, were not subtle because they knew, all too well, that you either have the right to choose or you don’t. Yes, debating the ethics of abortion is a nice way to engage pro-life advocates and, perhaps, to find common ground. But if we lose this right, there is no debate.

Defend your rights by signing Planned Parenthood’s Stop Stupak! petition or, better yet, by joining them on Wednesday, December 2 in D.C. (The Center for Reproductive Rights also has information on the National Day of Action.)