by Katie Stack, reproductive justice activist and speaker.
This week an estimated 500,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. for the annual anti-abortion March for Life. Reports suggest a large number of young people in attendance, which is being used to bolster the notion that young people are overwhelmingly identified as prolife. While it’s true that recent polls suggest that many young Americans do favor the prolife label, I do not believe that it means that they will become adults who are blindly committed to criminalizing abortion.
As someone who was raised in a Catholic family, I spent much of my youth surrounded by anti-abortion rhetoric and prolife activities. I helped my father’s chapter of Knights of Columbus (a rigidly anti-abortion Catholic fraternity) organize countless fundraisers and events for anti-abortion groups. Every Sunday in January I would leave mass after communion and gather in the rectory to had out roses, fetus feet lapel pins and to collect donations for Protect Life Month. My friends and I were excited to do so. Not only did we get to spend time together and avoid closing hymns, but we got to “save babies” as well.
It would seem surprising, given my upbringing, that I would grow up to become a avid advocate for reproductive justice and abortion rights. It would seem even more surprising that I would have an abortion myself or choose a career working in an abortion clinic.
For me, the shift started my freshmen year of college when a life long friend and fellow Catholic found herself facing an unplanned pregnancy. As she struggled to find the resources to pay for a second trimester abortion, I struggled with my own internal conflict. On the one hand, I wanted to be supportive, on the other; I believed that she should be responsible for her actions. One evening I suggested that if she couldn’t get the money together she could also consider continuing the pregnancy and placing the baby for adoption. I’ll never forget the look she gave me as she explained, clearly, that continuing the pregnancy was not an option. I realized in that moment that the only way to be truly compassionate was to trust her; that what ever abstract, philosophical debate was taking place in my head, I simply had no way of knowing why she felt the way that she did in her heart.
Since working in abortion care I’ve found that this shift from a self identified “prolife” child and teen to an adult abortion rights advocate is not uncommon. In fact, quite a few of my co-workers experienced similar shifts.
Aimee, a 25 year old abortion clinic employee, doula and birth justice advocate, grew up being adamantly opposed to abortion and surrounded by anti-abortion rhetoric in an conservative evangelical community. Aimee says that she held on to the prolife label well into college, even after taking a Women’s Studies course. While talking with a peer about her abortion views, she realized that the label no longer fit her. “My views changed before my identity did,” she says.
Recent polling suggests that this is the case for the majority of young people in America. For while some polling suggests 50% of all Americans identify as prolife, others make it clear that young Americans do not want to overturn Roe v. Wade or further restrict abortion access.
In fact, according to a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 68 percent of millennials support abortion access in their own community. By contrast only 60 percent of baby boomers and 42 percent of seniors support access. Similarly, while PEW research indicates that only 44% of people under 30 know that Roe v. Wade was about abortion, once respondents were educated about the Supreme Court decision 68% believed that it should not be overturned.
The fact is, for many young people the March for Life is a free or low-cost trip to Washington, D.C. It is a field trip with friends and it allows them to spend time in a new city and often away from their parents. While their energy and enthusiasm for anti-abortion policy may be shocking, we can rest assured that it is not representative and that it will likely not be lasting. Anti-abortion efforts are well organized and well funded, but they represent a small, vocal minority and are not representative of the future of attitudes towards abortion in the United States.