Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, turns thirty-four today. To honor the occasion, we should take time to reflect on the women who helped us reach this anniversary. Their struggles and determination made it possible for many women to have autonomy over their own bodies today.
Some of these ground-breaking activists believe that the level of activism they displayed more than three decades ago is difficult to find in young women today. These young women—my generation—simply take all that was handed to them for granted. All we have ever known is legal abortion, so how could we possibly feel the same fire to protect it as the women who experienced back-alley procedures or watched their friends surrender their career ambitions and education to start a family too young?
Though young women often face these and more platitudes, abortion rights are still important to us in 2007—they’ve just been joined by many other issues that directly affect women’s ability to care for their bodies and lead full, healthy lives.
While abortion remains a critical issue to young women, other reproductive health concerns have gained importance in ensuring a woman’s ability to have sovereignty over her body. The immediate and enduring threat of HIV/AIDS, for example, is a crucial point of action for people under the age of 25. Half of all new cases come from that age-bracket, and young women are particularly vulnerable.
The Human Papilloma Virus is also a key concern for young women. One in every three sexually active young women has contracted HPV, a virus that can lead to cervical cancer. And by the age of 50, 80 percent of all sexually active women will have, at some point, contracted HPV.
The pro-choice framework is no longer a single-issue agenda; it has expanded to meet the reproductive health concerns facing all women, including those who have historically been excluded from certain aspects of the pro-choice agenda. We are making great waves to broaden the traditional reproductive rights framework into one of reproductive justice so that the needs and concerns of low-income women, women of color, and young women receive equal amounts of support and agency.
Young women today want to take care of themselves yet face many obstacles in doing so, such as barriers to health care and education. Advanced technologies and opportunities for safe reproductive health care may be within our legal grasp, but for many reasons, including religious pharmacists and reluctant doctors, they remain inaccessible to many young women—particularly those who are uninsured.
More than 15 percent of women don’t have health insurance in this country, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to visit a gynecologist for annual exams and sexually transmitted disease screening. Low income women on Medicaid continue to be denied financial coverage from the government to obtain abortions. And a new vaccine, Gardasil, can be used against HPV, yet the cost of this series of shots is beyond most women’s means and few insurance companies are offering up their support and coverage.
Previous generations have opened many doors for young women; our amount of personal responsibility has multiplied, leaving us feeling empowered and grateful, but also overwhelmed and confused by all of our options. Lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive education naturally plays a large role in a young woman’s ability to understand her reproductive health. Yet young women are being asked to take complete responsibility for their bodies without the access to education that would tell them how to make safe choices.
Under the Bush administration’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programming (which disregards the fact that reproductive health is important within marriage as well), young women are often left in the dark when it comes to contraception, pregnancy, and STD prevention, and are being denied referrals to clinics and reproductive health doctors. Women under 18 are not allowed to purchase emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill, without a prescription, and many do not even know of its existence.
We may have gained ground for the women’s movement when Roe was decided, but we have unfortunately fallen behind when it comes to educating our youth about what their reproductive options are and how to access them. Barriers to access and education are still with us despite Roe.
Yet there are reasons to be optimistic. Campus reproductive rights chapters and youth programs are taking foot around the country, giving young people access to more resources. New efforts are also being made by reproductive justice organizations to reach beyond traditional forms of campus outreach so that communities outside of educational institutions can have equal access to information and education about their reproductive health.
The majority of these programs are being executed by young women in the movement who have been inspired by their Roe-era predecessors. Many times, however, the efforts of the young people running and participating in these programs are overshadowed by a looming sense of our generation’s general apathy and the lack of activism others attribute to us. Our fight may not be the same as the older generations’ and the way in which we go about it may be different from what others envisioned for us, but it is still valuable and relevant. In order to build movements, we must be able to fight our own battles in our own way. As we do so, we look to the women who fought for Roe to give us their wisdom and expertise, and we hope they look to us as the future of the movement.
As we celebrate the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we can be encouraged that we are building a holistic pro-choice framework that is inclusive and adaptable. We are no longer starting and ending our conversations with abortion; we are talking about comprehensive sex education, HIV/AIDS, access to health care, and other reproductive options and concerns. Most importantly, we are learning that in order to empower all women and make the most of our activism, we have to allow for and tailor our work to the diverse set of circumstances in which women of all backgrounds currently live.
For my generation, Roe v. Wade is only the beginning.
Mary Mahoney is the development associate of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, an organization dedicated to engaging young women on their terms around the critical issue of reproductive freedom.