One of the worst, most prevalent clichés espoused by far too many in the reproductive rights movement is that young people take gender equality and reproductive freedom for granted. Although the implication is an offensive one, the argument continues to resurface in a variety of forms—and each time, it effectively erases the extensive leadership and work of many youth activists.
Most recently, the stereotype emerged again in an October article for the liberal publication The American Prospect, where writing fellow Rachel M. Cohen concluded that in general, “campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.”
Cohen’s frame is curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, it singles out campus feminists as agents of change, while letting other progressive constituencies off the hook. What about left-leaning political groups and human rights groups? Shouldn’t they, too, be pushing for abortion access?
Furthermore, it pits the issues of sexual assault and abortion rights as mutually exclusive and locked in a zero-sum game for attention. On the contrary, many people—especially feminists—would argue that the two goals are interconnected flash points within the ongoing struggle for gender equality and sexual liberation.
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The paths toward change for these issues are distinct from each other too. In 2011, the Department of Education made universities an even more actionable target in the fight against assault on campus with guidance clarifying that universities receiving federal funds have enforceable and measurable obligations to address sexual violence under Title IX, the landmark 1972 regulation prohibiting gender discrimination in education. Universities have no parallel mandate under the law to ensure their students are able to access abortion; decision-makers with the power to make a difference tend to sit in distant government buildings.
Thus, it is perfectly possible for members of college communities to push for both safer universities and wider access to reproductive rights. However, I’d like to broaden the discussion beyond addressing Cohen’s individual points. Instead, I’ll examine the groundbreaking work young people are already doing for reproductive rights—on and off campus—and point out ways to support their efforts.
Abortion Activism on Campus
In stark contrast to implications that enthusiasm for abortion rights and reproductive justice is withering on the quad at the college near you, some student leaders, and the national organizers supporting them, say that campus organizing has been growing more rapidly in recent semesters.
“Last week marked the first time we’ve had enough regular volunteers to table every day of the week,” Abby Grace, a senior at Georgetown University and president of the reproductive rights group H*yas for Choice, told Rewire. As a Catholic university, Georgetown does not recognize H*yas for Choice as an official student organization. In September, Georgetown police removed its members from demonstrating from for the second time in 2014, which then led to a larger campaign to support free speech on campus.
Advocacy for abortion rights takes different forms, depending on the institution. Some groups choose to affiliate as chapters or action networks of larger national organizations, whereas others use support materials at their discretion or are wholly independent. According to Planned Parenthood’s website, for instance, there are more than 200 groups in 45 states active in its Planned Parenthood Generation Action Network for student leaders.
In addition, student activists at about 80 colleges use materials from the reproductive health and rights nonprofit Advocates for Youth’s 1 in 3 Campaign, which publicizes individual abortion stories from around the world. “As a result, during the 2013-2014 school year, each chapter directly reached at least 500 students and faculty members with information and stories,” Kate Stewart, who serves as the group’s executive vice president for public affairs, told Rewire in an email. “In addition, Advocates [for Youth] assisted each chapter to place a campaign ad in their campus newspaper, in total reaching an additional 450,000 students, faculty, and alum[s].”
Representatives from some national organizations say that many student groups, rather than focusing on abortion alone, approach reproductive rights issues as a facet of combating societal inequality.
“Young people see the intersections of [sexual health and justice] issues wholeheartedly,” said Julia Reticker-Flynn, an associate director of youth organizing and mobilization at Advocates for Youth. For example, students see on-campus safety and contraceptive availability as interconnected, rather than discrete, points of activism.
Within college communities, she explained, “People see what is happening to them and in their community and want to do something about it. [When students have] a friend who has HIV or a friend who is LGBT, or who has been sexually assaulted, or had an abortion,” she said, they often see similarities in the responses their peers’ situations garner, and they want to combat stigma on all such fronts.
Reticker-Flynn also points out that students fighting shame around abortion can and do use lessons learned from the struggle against on-campus sexual assault. Referencing the success of sexual violence speak-outs such as Take Back The Night, she says that Advocates for Youth is working with student groups to share their abortion experiences in similarly safe, empowering spaces. The University of Michigan, the University of Central Michigan, and the University of Central Florida all held abortion speak-outs last year and this year; according to Reticker-Flynn, between 200 and 300 people attended those events.
“Student” Doesn’t Always Mean “Young Person,” and Vice-Versa
Even as we explore just a few of the ways people are standing up for reproductive rights at colleges, however, it is vital to remember that students and young people are not always the same populations.
Using the campus setting as a symbol for youth activism as a whole privileges those with the financial means to attend college, and translates to talking about people who are disproportionately white. In some communities, college-age may seem to encapsulate most people in their late teens and early 20s. In others, it does not. Focusing solely on organizing at universities, therefore, can leave out those people who are most severely impacted by the vicious cycle created by poverty and punitive restrictions on access to abortion services.
And make no mistake: Beyond universities, young people are organizing for abortion access.
They may not be carrying coat hangers and using phone trees to connect with women they met at a consciousness-raising session in somebody’s dorm room, the primary methods some advocates might recognize as activism, but these reproductive rights supporters are here and they are effective.
Young people defeat abortion bans. Young people answer phones for abortion funds. Young people lead rallies in statehouse rotundas. Young people keep mainstream pro-choice organizations running by serving as their entry-level organizers and often-unpaid interns—and seriously, shame on those groups that talk the social justice talk and don’t pay every member of their organization.
Young people are expanding the conversation beyond “choice.” Young people blog for reproductive justice. Young people are proactively including men in the conversation. Young people gather support on social media and hold decision-makers accountable. Young people are at the core of organizing in red states. Young people serve as clinic escorts and demonstration organizers and, for Rewire, authors in a young writers program that I am so honored to manage.
Young people are active, and they are saying the “abortion” word proudly. But they are also situating abortion access within a broader context, drawing on decades-long work led by women of color in developing an intersectional conception of reproductive justice that champions the right to abortion, the right to healthy pregnancy, and the right to raise children in safe communities. So, again, a frame pitting abortion rights against sexual violence directly conflicts with the way that many young organizers approach these issues, since they are talking about both and more.
In just one example, H*yas for Choice is also focusing this year on what Abby Grace, too, called “the intersectional nature of reproductive justice.” It recently hosted the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health to discuss how documentation status affects a woman’s access to all forms of reproductive health care.
It’s important to note, as well, that “intersectional” doesn’t necessarily mean “feminist.” A few key points: Intersectionality is about experiences. It values the experiences of individual people, and the discriminations and privileges they face on the basis of not just biological womanhood, but also race, ethnicity, documentation status, class, ability, and gender identity. Speaking for “all women” and arguing for “choices,” which frequently happens in dominant feminist dialogues, erases and homogenizes the people who lack the same options as white women with graduate degrees and credit cards.
Many youth leaders who advocate for abortion and reproductive justice, then, have grown frustrated with—and sometimes offended by—explicitly feminist organizations who fail to incorporate this variety of backgrounds into their efforts. For example, in recent years, the issue of transgender inclusion has become particularly important for young organizers. Recently, the National Women’s Law Center released a video featuring Sarah Silverman soliciting a sex change in order to rise above the wage gap; many young people felt that the effort reinforced the gender binaries and genital policing that they are directly trying to dismantle as a core of their practice.
Meanwhile, some activists have also been dissatisfied by the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), which offers a countrywide campus organizing program that includes a campaign on abortion access. Kristy Birchard, a former FMF campus organizer, told Rewire that for many students, “FMF represents top-down politics. I think it really does represent a lack of inclusion for a lot of people who haven’t felt represented by the feminist movement, and even though [FMF] tries very hard to be inclusive, that’s just where it ends up most of the time.”
Each year, FMF hosts a National Young Feminist Leadership Conference in the Washington, D.C., area; the past two years have prompted pushback on social media that the conference is not doing enough to create a trans-inclusive space.
“Probably the issue or the language that has been the most striking … [for] students … is trans inclusivity, queerness, and how important that is to them,” said Meghan Shalvoy, who worked as a campus organizer with FMF from 2010 to 2012. Although she says she and her peers fought to establish a gender-neutral bathroom at the annual conference, there was resistance from the leadership against using terms like queer, which are largely positive for young people but taken as offensive by some older activists. “I know that having it not feel like a safe and inclusive space was really offensive to students,” she continued.
For well-funded individuals and groups that want to amplify the efforts of young people organizing for abortion and reproductive justice, situations like these present important opportunities for change.
In order to better support on-the-ground efforts, Shalvoy advised, those with resources should “be more responsive to … student organizers and prioritize [them] over funders.” When it came to her time with FMF, she said, “It never seemed like the organizational leadership was interested in hearing what was happening on campus, but rather pushing an agenda that lined up with these Democratic [Party] values … It all goes back to grant funding.”
“There [are] some really basic obvious things of providing opportunities for funding and access to trainings and those mentorship pieces,” Reticker-Flynn pointed out. But, she said, it’s also important not to disregard the work youth activists are already doing.
“It’s challenging to hear over and over again that young people aren’t engaged on this issue and aren’t working on it; for myself and others we see the opposite. I think it’s really important to value that work and to create opportunities for young people to be seen as leaders in this movement, so when an event or action happens to not just have young people showing up to the event, but to have young people leading these conversations.
I remember one event where a young person had collected 5,000 signatures and they were introducing the speaker,” she said. “I thought they should be the speaker.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that Advocates for Youth is a reproductive health and rights organization. We regret the error.