Of course most young people don’t know what Roe v. Wade is. Why should they? I know nothing about the battle of Dunkirk or the fields of Verdun. Most people have a vague idea about the battles of the past; they care most about the battles they’re fighting today. And for young people, the abortion battle is over; why do they need to know its name?
Here’s the background: Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released a poll on American attitudes toward Roe v. Wade on its 40th anniversary year. Among the findings: while upwards of six out of ten Americans know the historic decision was about abortion, fewer than half of those ages 18-29 did. Just 44 percent, in fact. Numbers are higher if you’ve been to college or graduate school, of course, where you’re likely to have been forced into some public policy or contemporary issues class or conversation.
But once they know what it is, they want it to stay legal. Less than one-third—27 percent—of that age group wants it overturned.
Young people quite reasonably believe that the question of whether or not they are in charge of what they do with their bodies is, as they say in the land of constitutional lawyers, “long settled.” Need an abortion? Get one. Oppose it? Don’t get one. You have the final say. Almost anyone facing an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy will talk it over with those who matter: their boyfriend or husband, their parents, their best friends, their spiritual advisors, whomever those might be. But the woman whose body those dividing cells are occupying is the one who gets to decide what to do.
Young people don’t remember that it wasn’t always so, any more than they can remember the world of typewriters, no answering machines, three television channels, and rampant smoking. In so many ways the country before Roe v. Wade was a different country. Last year woke plenty of people up: as Republican politicians and their backers seriously debated whether or not contraception should be legal, and whether women could even get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” the numbers saying that abortion should be generally avialable went up and up, up to 42 percent by September 2012. And those numbers had jumped over the summer, folks. By November 2012, Rasmussen reported that 54 percent—more Americans than ever--called themselves “pro-choice.” After a year of Team Rape and mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, allowing women to choose what to do with their bodies for themselves had become the conservative position. As Katie Baker at Jezebel put it,
As it turns out, when people are forced to think a little harder about the meaning of "pro-life" — thanks to politicians like Akin and Richard "God luvs rape!" Mourdock, among many, many others — most don't actually identify with the pro-life platform. How odd!
The young’uns may not know Roe v. Wade by name—but they know that their bodies are their own. If it comes to a new battle, they’ll fight for it again. They might not have to, given the widening available of medical abortion (as opposed to surgical abortion—in other words, terminating a pregnancy by taking abortifacient medicines rather than having it scraped out of the body).
They won’t be fighting over the term “choice,” however. The movement is undertaking a rebranding, shifting to the idea that none of us should decide for anyone until we have walked in her shoes—reminding us that these aren’t casual decisions but profound decisions made in an incredible array of circumstances. The term “choice” has gotten contaminated with the idea that it’s as easy to decide whether to have a child as, say, whether to have a salad. (To my shock, Katie Roiphe has an excellent riff on this over at Slate, suggesting that we take up the slogan “pro-freedom.” I kinda love the Ayn Randianness of it.)
Following up on the recent polling conducted by Planned Parenthood, one line that really resonated with us was, “I don’t know a woman’s specific situation. I am not in her shoes.”
So to mark the 40th anniversary of Roe, This Is Personal is rolling out a new project, Not in Her Shoes. Part of our goal with this project is to remind young women (and men) across the country that our work isn’t done and that no one knows a woman’s specific situation when it comes to abortion and other reproductive health care.
I'll betcha we see plenty of young women's shoes. They may not know the decision's name, but they know that decision belongs to them.