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Commentary Politics

Young and Far From Apathetic on Abortion

Lauren Rankin & Dr. Sarp Aksel

It’s easy to say that millennials aren’t actively defending abortion rights. But it’s not true. In fact, the wide range of young people’s actions to preserve and advance access defies narrow definitions of "political activism."

This election season has brought mixed messages about youth activism. As Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have attempted to woo young voters, there’s also been pointed criticism that millennials’ supposed apathy has contributed to the erosion of, of all things, abortion rights.

The most notable example of such criticism was Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s January comments that she saw “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”

Schultz’s perception does not mirror our reality (nor the reality of a presidential campaign in which few candidates have given abortion rights any meaningful airtime).

We are the younger generation in question. Together, we are a 28-year-old abortion provider and a 30-year-old abortion clinic escort. Every day, we enable access to abortion care, and we aren’t the only ones. Our friends and colleagues work tirelessly to not only further the abortion rights movement, but to lead it.

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According to a 2015 Gallup poll, a greater proportion of people ages 18 to 34 identify as pro-choice than does any other age group. But what the statistics don’t reveal is the myriad manifestations our generation’s activism takes. We are abortion providers, clinic escorts, fundraising champions, writers, documentarians, and storytellers.

As an OB-GYN resident in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most medically underserved boroughs, Sarp bears daily witness to the vital role abortion care plays in pregnant people’s health and lives. Too often, he sees the devastating consequences of barriers to care, whether in the form of insurance coverage, gestational age limits, financial hardships, or support system struggles. Despite New York state’s more liberal policies on abortion, access remains a challenge for many of its residents and his patients.

Providing abortion care is an awesome responsibility, one that brings with it tremendous emotional rewards. Sarp feels it when a patient gently squeezes his hand immediately after terminating a wanted yet anomalous pregnancy. He hears it in the thoughtful thank-you notes he receives from patients long gone from his office. He sees it in the joyful tears of a patient whose abortion he performed six months ago, but who just found out she is pregnant with a partner who does not physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse her. He clings to these moments as he cares for patients and when he marches in support of their rights to choose when, whether, and with whom to be pregnant.

Sarp is a product of Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), an international nonprofit with a mission to create the next generation of abortion providers and pro-choice physicians. Students involved with MSFC take a directly activist role, working to destigmatize abortion care among medical students and residents, and to persuade medical schools and residency programs to include abortion as a part of the reproductive health services curriculum.

For Lauren, enabling access means being a support system and sometimes a human shield between patients and hateful, shaming protesters. Her Saturday mornings are spent on the sidewalk, escorting patients and companions from the safety of their cars to the safety of the clinic. Young people comprise a plurality of volunteers at Lauren’s clinic, and they show up every weekend to support those who need it.

Lauren has held sobbing teenage rape victims as they were retraumatized by the violent screams of the men outside the clinic doors. She has watched as a companion screamed at a protester, “You don’t know what we’re going through,” as he walked his partner into the clinic to terminate a wanted pregnancy.

Escorting patients means being insulted and even endangered. Lauren has been berated, harassed, threatened, and sexually harassed by protesters while volunteering. But she has also been hugged, praised, thanked, and supported by grateful patients, their companions, and even passersby.

The misconception that young people are complacent belies not only our lived experiences, but the experiences of our colleagues.

Young people are at the forefront of work with the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and state-based grassroots abortion funds. “Well over half of NNAF’s member organizations are proud to have young people in leadership positions as board members, staff, and hotline volunteers,” said NNAF Executive Director Yamani Hernandez in an email to Rewire. “Abortion funds are a welcoming place for the power and brilliance of young people because we recognize our movement is stronger when we support and amplify their leadership.”

We see young people bravely sharing their abortion stories to shatter stigma. Amanda Williams, the executive director of the Texas-based Lilith Fund, and NNAF Policy Representative Renee Bracey Sherman are among many telling their abortion stories to the world, challenging a culture of silence and shame around this basic health-care service.

And yes, young people are a visible presence at rallies for accessible abortion care. In March, they joined older activists to support abortion access at the Supreme Court during oral arguments for the Texas abortion case (and we were among them!).

On a daily basis, we see young people embodying the second-wave feminist ideal that “the personal is political” by defending abortion on the ground. Youth are making abortion accessible by doing the hands-on, personal work of funding abortions, providing abortions, escorting patients into clinics, and in some states, driving and housing patients.

This is a directly political act, particularly in states where abortion is increasingly inaccessible. Rallies and marches are good and important. But they don’t mean much to a low-income woman in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley when she has two weeks left to obtain an abortion in her state and nowhere within hundreds of miles to go. She needs money, transportation, an escort, and a provider. She needs actual, tangible help. And that is what young people are doing.

Not only that, but young people are making the abortion rights movement more inclusive and more effective. In many ways, the abortion rights frameworks and tactics of the 1960s and 1970s don’t hold water for the movement today; our social movements have changed, and so has technology. Young people are demanding that the right to a safe and legal abortion be contextualized along all other reproductive rights, including youth-led campaigns like #NoTeenShame, which seeks to destigmatize pregnant and parenting teens. Young people are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for abortion care by engaging social and digital media, leveraging the support of our followers to make access a reality. And young people are pushing the movement to be more gender-inclusive, to reflect the fact that not everyone who has an abortion identifies as a cisgender woman.

Young people aren’t checked out. We are engaged. We are working to make abortion accessible in an increasingly hostile landscape. Given the opportunity and support, young people can be the difference makers. So the next time critics of millenials are looking to blame someone for the current state of abortion rights, don’t look at us. We have work to do.

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