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The Next Forty Years

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that protected a woman's right to abortion. Thanks to Roe  and Doe v. Bolton, which also turns forty on January 22, an entire generation of women have grown up knowing that abortion is a legal medical procedure.

I am one of those women. So is my sister and my sister-in-law, my cousins and friends and colleagues. And so are the dozens of activists, providers, attorneys, and students that I have interviewed over the past four years for my book on the future of the pro-choice movement. I have been fortunate to spend so many hours talking with women--and men--whose passion, intelligence, and determination fills me with hope that legal abortion will be a right that my daughter's generation will know, too.

Yet that is far from a given. Despite the fact that millions of American women have abortions--according to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three women will have an abortion by age 45, and 60% of women that have abortions are already mothers--the past several years have seen a record number of anti-choice laws passed in states around this country. While proponents of such measures claim that they are acting in the best interest of women, it's hard to see how mandating the types of water fountains a clinic has, or forcing a woman to see an ultrasound will make an already safe procedure any safer.

The pro-choice movement as a whole has responded to these attacks with the expected outrage and legal battles, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that the established organizations that have long been the standard bearers of the cause are perpetually playing defense to the increasingly brazen offenses of the anti-choice movement.  As anti-choice supporters and politicians find ever-more inventive ways to disparage women for the choices that they make in their personal lives, young activists are beginning to feel more empowered -- and impatient -- to take action on their own, rather than wait for guidance from the  pro -choice movement's long-time leaders.

This will only be a net positive for the movement, because the new generation of activists that is and should be taking over is correctly focusing on education and community organizing. Through blogs, twitter, and grassroots organizations, they are simultaneously engaged in local action and also sharing ideas and strategies with activists around the country--the virtual version of our mothers' and grandmothers' consciousness-raising groups.


These methods of communication and collaboration are especially effective at encouraging women and men of all ages and backgrounds to share their stories about how reproductive rights and abortion have shaped their own lives. The importance of pro-choice websites like Abortion Gang, The Abortioneers, and the 1 in 3 Campaign can not be underestimated; in addition to presenting a wide range of stories and experiences, they also help foster discussion and serve as an important correction to many of the more pernicious anti-choice stereotypes around both who gets an abortion, and what abortion clinics are really like.


The new generation has also learned from the successes and setbacks of the past forty years. For all the legal and political battles that abortion has caused--and all the time, money, and resources they have used--very few judges or politicians have ever changed people's minds.  Talking on a more personal level about what reproductive choice is, and why it matters not just for women but also for men and families, is the most effective and meaningful way to affect lasting change.


Women's stories will always carry the day, an activist told me years ago. She meant the stories of women whose right to choose was restricted by where they lived or how much money they earned, but that saying also applies to any woman that values the ability to make her own decisions about pregnancy, motherhood, career, and education; any woman that does not want her very private and personal decisions made by politicians and judges.


There are millions of those stories, but too often they remain untold, victims of the persistent shame and stigma that abortion has carried for so many generations. For far too long, the abortion debate has been dominated by the inflammatory and sensationalistic rhetoric of the anti-choice movement. It is time for new voices to be heard, ones that reflect the reality of this very common choice and resonate not just with the pro-choice faithful but with the millions of people in this country that have grown up with legal abortion and might otherwise take this right for granted. This is the challenge that awaits the new generation of activists, and this is the challenge that they are well-equipped to meet.

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Women's health advocate and writer Sarah Erdreich has been identified as a leading pro-choice activist by Newsweek, and her incisive writings on abortion rights have been noted by Jezebel, Feministing, and the National Partnership for Women and Families. She has worked for several prominent pro-choice organizations, and has been published in On The Issues, Lilith, Feminists For Choice, (more...)
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The Next Forty Years

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