By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Most of all, a new generation of young women has grown to adulthood, oblivious to the wretched history of back-alley abortions and young lives ruined by unplanned pregnancies, unaware that after 1973 abortion deaths dwindled to near zero from a one-time (and no doubt underreported) high of 200 per year. These women were born after medical science had already figured out that HIV causes AIDS; they have been trained to use condoms — and to know that even when they don't, an escape route exists, immediate and affordable. They may not like the way out, but they don't have to: The path is already well-worn.
"I know that that Jane Roe woman is against abortion now," says 18-year-old Julia, a senior at Hamilton High School. "We learned about that in government." What she didn't always know is that what Jane Roe stood for might be important to her. "It's just been recently that I've decided to be pro-choice," she says. "Now that I'm getting older, I can place myself in that situation." In other words, Julia started having sex. One of her friends got pregnant last year, and she had an abortion without her parents' consent. Now most of Julia's friends are pro-choice too, "because the situation is real to them," she says.
"You always think that you're being safe about it," Julia says. "But you never think that you're the one who could get pregnant. Everyone uses protection, but some people who use protection get pregnant." And, she acknowledges, despite all the medically accurate family-planning education taught to high schoolers as mandated by California law, kids mess up. "Sometimes we're not as careful as we should be," says Julia.
I tell Julia about the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, about some of the legislation around the country nicking away at reproductive choice. Last month the Georgia state legislature introduced a measure that would classify abortion as execution and require a woman to obtain a death warrant by pleading her case before a court. Would Julia storm the barricades if such a law were to apply in California?
Julia is honest. "I've never really thought of myself as a real out-there pro-choice kind of person, just because I still have conflicting feelings about taking life. My reason for being pro-choice is kind of selfish in a way. I don't know if I would go to an extreme like going to a rally."
"YOUNG GIRLS CAN BE SOJUDGMENTAL," SAYS Wendy McPherson, who refers to herself as the organizer — "not the president, not the leader" — of the local chapter of Radical Women, a national group that came into being in 1967 specifically to lead the charge for reproductive rights. "As this country has turned rightward, there is incredible pressure from young women to be very moralistic on abortion. The media are constantly barraging young women who are still forming their opinions on the world. And what they hear most is abortion is murder."
Before Roe v. Wade,says McPherson, "Young women knew that if they got pregnant, their life was over. You were either going to die from a butchered abortion, or have a child in shame, or end up with a child you weren't able to raise." Young women and girls in 2003 don't always know that history; because they take abortion rights for granted, they can afford to be blasé about it. "I always talk to them," says McPherson. "I say, 'What do you think of feminism? And what I find is they don't know the history. The ideas they agree with — that women should be equal — but they don't know where those ideas came from." (To remedy that, Radical Women is presenting a six-part series of history discussions, beginning Friday with McPherson leading the talk.)
McPherson is living proof that activism does not have to be motivated by self-interest: She's 42, a lesbian, and has never had a need to seek an abortion herself. But she believes that reproductive choice is fundamental not only to women's rights, but to the right of each human to determine what to do with his or her body. "If this system decides you don't have a right to reproductive freedom, the right wing will continue to extend that to lesbians, to tell them they don't have the right to live and sleep with other women. They'll pull contraceptives from the market and discontinue research into safer contraceptives; they can tell gay men that they're going to restore the sodomy laws. When you make that legislative statement — that a woman has the absolute right to determine what happens with her body — it extends to every human right. When you take that freedom away, it's taken away from everybody."
McPherson sees her job as training women to be activists; teaching them to make speeches, write press releases, do what it takes to influence the public mindset. But I worry about her tactics: "Under capitalism, the women they want to control and become baby machines are the white women," she tells me. "Latinas and other undesirable ethnicities have to fight forced sterilization." Then why is abortion increasingly less available to poor women and women of color — women who, incidentally, seem less inclined these days to fight for choice? "The capitalist system is fundamentally based on needing the concept of the modern nuclear family," she continues. "Because Dad goes out and makes a living, the capitalists get two workers for the price of one." I think of all the moms I know who would love nothing more than to be that worker folded into the deal, staying at home, caring for the kids. How will McPherson's analysis of society play at Beverly Hills High, to a young woman like Gina?