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43 Years After Roe V. Wade, Young Women Are Carrying The Fight For Abortion Rights

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On the eve of the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the state of reproductive rights in America are in a tenuous position.

In a conference call with Refinery29, Dana Singiser, Planned Parenthood's vice president for public policy and government affairs, called 2016 “a watershed moment” for access to abortion care. Two major court cases before the Supreme Court, plus a presidential election, mean that 2016 has the potential to devastate a woman’s right to choose. “If the court allows these laws to go into effect, women could lose the right to have a safe, legal abortion in this country.”
It’s the most significant crossroads in abortion rights since 1993’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when the high court ruled that states have the right to regulate abortion, provided those regulations don’t put an “undue burden” on women seeking to access health care. In the current cases, the Supreme Court justices now have the option to uphold regulations that could render abortion care either de facto inaccessible or to overturn Roe v. Wade altogether.

But much like in the early days of feminism, the hope for today lies in the dedicated women who are actively asserting their rights. Despite criticism that young women today aren’t as involved as previous generations in fighting for their rights, a new movement to assert abortion rights is leaning heavily on the contributions of young women, particularly grassroots movements and social media.

One of the greatest weapons that young women are using in fighting for their right to access reproductive care is their own experience. According to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three women will have an abortion by age 45 and one in 10 will have an abortion by age 20. Despite the fact that abortion is more commonplace than appendectomies, there remains a stigma and shame around ending a pregnancy. As the state of women’s rights in the 21st century continues to worsen, many advocacy groups are encouraging women to share their stories as a way to publicize the need for reproductive rights.

Social media has been uniquely helpful in this regard. In September of last year, activist Amelia Bonow posted on Facebook the personal story of her abortion. Her story blew up on social media under the hashtag #shoutyourabortion. “Within just a few days, the hashtag had been used a quarter million times,” she said on a recent conference call with reporters. “For the first time I could remember, it felt as though women’s voices were finally driving the national conversation about abortion.”

United for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE) is another organization getting in on the trend, with a new "abortion positive" campaign, in which women are encouraged to share their stories. “It’s time that we come out as pro abortion,” Kierra Johnson, the executive director of URGE told Refinery29. “It kind of lends itself to two things. One, being positive about abortion, and the other being almost like a check mark — ‘I’ve had an abortion. I’m abortion positive.’”
Using a private experience as a public weapon is one of the great ironies in the modern fight for abortion rights. In 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided not on the basis of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, but rather on the basis of a woman’s right to privacy in her medical decisions. In the landmark decision, Justice Blackmun invoked one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, writing, “This right of privacy...is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

But in 2016, surrendering her own right to privacy may be a woman's most effective weapon in maintaining her reproductive choices. On Tuesday, the 3 in 1 Campaign hosted an abortion shoutout on YouTube, where women were invited to share their stories live via Twitter or Skype. Advocates For Youth, the organization behind the campaign, filed a selection of stories collected by the campaign as an amicus brief in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, one of the cases before the high court, as evidence that abortion access is crucial to the lives of young women.

It’s the new voice of a movement in which the strongest statement of solidarity is no longer simply taking to the streets. But the ultimate basis for the 1973 decision remains: Do women now have to sacrifice their privacy in order to retain their rights?

“We have a responsibility [as a movement] to make room for the people who want to talk about their abortions and give them that space free from stigma and shame,” Johnson said. “But we also have a responsibility of not putting on the shoulders of people who may not want to tell that story that somehow, they’ve failed the movement.” She added that there will people who don’t want to tell what might be a very personal story — and that’s okay. “For as many reasons as people want to tell their stories and how many of those stories exist, there are as many people and as many reasons for why they don’t want to tell them.”

Whether or not a woman wants to to share her story, the new face of the pro-reproductive rights movement is a young one. “[Young women] may not be doing it in the ways that folks from the old guard have the appropriate barometer to measure, but it’s very clear to me that people are talking about this and engaging with this issue and taking back the conversation in their own way on their own terms like never before,” Bonow said. “Young women are driving that culture shift.”

Johnson also cautions that conversation does not necessarily equal change, however. “Talking about these issue is a piece of the puzzle," she says. "We have to be getting pro-women, pro-abortion, pro-social justice candidates in office and we’ve got to hold them accountable.”

“All of these pieces have to go together," she adds. "[A story] is not a silver bullet.”
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