A few particularly harsh years of abortion restrictions at the federal and state level have blossomed into a season of new, unapologetically pro-choice books about abortion rights.
Among those books is Sarah Erdreich’s Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement (Seven Stories Press), which adds a distinct and worthwhile voice to the canon. Yes, the book is informative and you will learn quite a few things. Better yet, it’s fun to read a passionate younger woman write a whole book that she says was inspired by a 2009 New York Times article titled “Where to Pass the Torch?” that is well-summarized by the following quote from Sally Burgess, executive director of the Hope Clinic for Women:
“What I observe for women in their 20s and 30s—there are fewer who really have the fire in their belly for this.”
By “this,” Burgess meant working on the front lines of providing abortion care. You see quotes like there a lot in “young people could care less” articles that make conclusions about young women without bothering to talk to them.
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Generation Roe provides a savvy overview of how abortion came to be so inaccessible, marginalized, and stigmatized while disproving the tired media trope that “young women don’t care about abortion.”
What is so great about this book is Erdreich’s insistence on taking the pro-choice movement to task for actions that may, however inadvertently, have supported two consecutive calendar years that saw the highest and second-highest number of new abortion restrictions ever.
She’s willing to come out and say that organizational alliances with the Democratic Party aren’t going to solve the problem and further notes that “[p]oliticians treat abortion provision like an exotic form of medical care, one that requires unique rules and restrictions, in part because that is how society still views abortion itself.”
Generation Roe lays out in painstaking detail how it came to be that abortion clinics, abortion training in medical schools, and abortion as a discussion topic within popular culture are severely curtailed and don’t properly serve the messy reality of women’s lives.
Abortion is, for the women who experience it, ambiguous. Abortion is emotionally complex. One of the larger themes, and important suggestions, within Erdreich’s book is for those organizations with large platforms to join many existing activists in presenting abortion in all its complexity.
The pro-choice movement cannot expect to survive if it does not allow every kind of story to be told, even the ones that cause others to examine their own values and biases. Simply framing abortion as a sad or otherwise regrettable choice is capitulating to the anti-choice messaging, which holds that every abortion is a mistake and every woman suffers. Without a counter-voice, it’s easy for the general public to believe this narrative, despite how common abortion really is.
As Erdreich points out, many young activists are doing just this, often using social media. “New activists see that the veil of privacy that shrouds real discussions about unplanned pregnancies and the experience of surgical and medical abortion has not helped their cause,” she writes.
She argues that talking more openly about real experiences with abortion and reproductive health care, both at individual and institutional levels, will help to dispel the idea that abortion is always bad and will allow the movement to play offense as well as defense. Further, she argues that advocates need to stop allowing one side to talk about children and the other side to talk about women; Erdreich writes that abortion rights advocates need to talk about both. Accordingly, Generation Roe shares the story of Dana Weinstein’s decision to have an abortion after discovering that the baby she was expecting didn’t have a brain. “I have the utmost respect for people who make a different decision,” Weinstein says in the book, “but the fact of the matter is, it’s a choice. We have a right to make a choice that’s best for our baby.”
Language and perspectives like this are found throughout the book.
When speaking about the established organizations in the pro-choice movement, Erdreich is well aware of what she’s talking about. A former staffer for the National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., she candidly shares her thoughts about operating in a top-down environment where she was not allowed to speak publicly about the organization’s work in a media piece in which she was already featured. As someone who has drawn my own conclusions after several tours of duty within the old guard of the pro-choice movement, let’s just say I was impressed enough by her bravery that I said “wow” out loud.
At the same time, I had some additional hopes for the book. Toward the end she argues for more autonomy and funding for local organizations working within the movement, which would be helpful, but I found myself wishing she would have directly made more suggestions about changes that can be made to keep advocates more nimble and in-step with the times at the national level as well.
Another donkey, so to speak, in the room: Generation Roe includes no discussion of the much-publicized resignation by Nancy Keenan as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America to make room for a younger leader, and her recent replacement by MoveOn.org alum Ilyse Hogue. Perhaps this was due to publishing timelines, which would be a bummer. It seems like a perfect topic for the book.
Erdreich closes the book by naming her ideal pro-choice movement; it revolves around “education, conversation and outreach.” She has a lot of good to contribute to a movement that is going through needed change. Talking is great, and conversations do have the power to change lives, but, beyond what’s in the book, this is also about votes: who is running for office, who is able to vote without restriction, how districts and seats are established, unaccountable political parties, and the list goes on. The trick is going to be pursuing the cultural change Generation Roe suggests while working on the political climate as well. It has to be both.