Tough Roe to Hoe

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

ELENA*, SPEAKING JUST FOR HERSELF, WOULD never have an abortion. "If you do that," says the 18-year-old freshman at Cal State L.A., "you have to live the rest of your life knowing that you killed another human being. And I could not live like that." Even if the fetus had an abnormality, "It is still a human being." Even if she were raped, "It would still be my child." Elena is unsympathetic to the friends and family members who have had abortions, as well as to the "five or six girls" who were pregnant in her high school last year. "If you are smart enough to go ahead and have sex," she says, "you should be responsible for the consequences."

Elena comes from a strict Catholic family in inner-city Los Angeles (she recently graduated from Locke High School). And while she is perhaps more exacting in the standards she sets for herself than her middle-class, less devout peers, she is just like them in another: Theoretically speaking, Elena still believes abortion should be kept legal. "But I would never protest to keep it that way," she says, "because I don't worry about getting pregnant. Right now I am totally not having sex."

Over at Beverly Hills High School, 14-year-old Lauren justifies her pro-choice position by saying that "If the baby has Tay-Sachs, it should not have to suffer." Gina, her 15-year-old classmate, asserts that "If a girl just broke up with her boyfriend or something, then I think she should put the baby up for adoption, but if the baby has Downs syndrome, abortion is okay." (Still, Gina acknowledges, "If I got pregnant right now, it would ruin my life.") Hannah, 17, who is "half and half" on abortion and thinks she might have an abortion herself were she to get pregnant before she's "married and stable" (at 26, according to her life plan), wonders whether reproductive choice is just making it easier for kids to be promiscuous. "If there is nowhere to go for an abortion," she speculates, "maybe kids wouldn't consider having sex."

Hearing from these girls, all of whom believe that abortion should continue to be safe and legal, and none willing to fight to keep it that way, I'm reminded of women my own age, in their 40s and older, who cleared adolescence within the decade that women won the right to determine their own reproductive futures. As with these high school girls, women at the end of their childbearing years often say they believe in a woman's right to choose, yet would be hard pressed to devote their activism to that cause. "I let my NARAL membership expire," one 40-year-old friend confided to me on the day the Los Angeles Times featured a front-page story on the efforts of fundamentalist Christians to have embryos declared persons. "It just seems to me that there are so many other things." It's true: I write my Planned Parenthood check perfunctorily now, remembering the people who treated me with respect and patience when I was a 21-year-old acting student living in a New York residential hotel, six weeks pregnant and desperate not to be. There is more urgency in my contributions to the Sierra Club, or Doctors Without Borders, or Amnesty International. We march against any impending war, but we do not stand in front of abortion clinics to protect the women inside. Political activism is often borne of as much self-centered fear as fundamentalism.

And yet the movement still needs us, because the holy war on reproductive choice is in full swing: Bush has chosen Dr. David Hager to head up the FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs, even though Hager refuses to prescribe contraceptives to his married patients, and opposes not just abortion but emergency contraception (EC), a large dose of hormones that can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex (EC is not to be confused with RU 486, or mifepristone, which is a chemically induced terminating of an actual pregnancy). The slyly named "Abortion Non-Discrimination Act" currently sits before the Senate (having passed the House in September), expertly crafted for the purpose of eliminating the last provision of the 1977 Hyde amendment, which ended federal funding for all abortions except in the case of rape or grave danger to the woman's life. (Under the new bill, publicly funded health-care providers can refuse to perform an abortion no matter what the circumstances, on the grounds that such refusal is a matter of conscience.)

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that keeps track of such things, 36 percent of California's counties are without an abortion provider, and California is progressive — the nationwide percentage is 87. The man who governs our country declares a "Sanctity of Life Day" even while he threatens a war. And while two-thirds of the electorate nationwide has remained consistently pro-choice over the decades, I wonder if that fortress will hold through all the chipping away when the barely balanced Supreme Court reaches the issue's exposed core: Roe v. Wade itself.  


A LOT HAS HAPPENED IN THE 30 YEARS SINCE THE U.S. Supreme Court determined, in a 7-2 vote, that the country's Constitution supported a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. The 26-year-old lawyer who argued on behalf of Roe, Sarah Weddington, is now a highly paid public speaker and college lecturer who last year fought a battle with breast cancer that distracted her somewhat from pro-choice activism. Jane Roe herself, known more officially as Norma McCorvey, has been an anti-abortion crusader since she went born-again in 1995; there are pictures of her on the Internet, getting baptized in a swimming pool.

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 SO JUDGMENTAL," 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?

"I want to marry at 23," says Gina, confidently. "I want to be a pharmacist. I will start college at 18, and study for four years. After I finish school, I'll get married. I plan on being a working mom," she concludes. "Even if my husband is a millionaire."


"ABORTION IS ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT YOU don't know you'll need until you need it," says Martha Swiller, executive director of Planned Parenthood's advocacy project in Los Angeles, who talked to me over the phone as her 11-month-old daughter sang loudly in the background. "It's really not uncommon for people who think they're against abortion, and even activists who picket, to access abortion services, and to justify it by saying their case is different. That's why it's so important for us to advocate for abortion rights. We believe that we need to be a voice for all women — including the women who say they oppose abortion."

Swiller tells the story of an abortion provider who, as she was preparing to perform an abortion, heard her patient call her a "baby killer." "She said, 'Excuse me? Are you sure you want to go through with this?' and then recognized her as one of the regular picketers. And the woman said, 'Well, I'm different. I'm married, I have two kids, and I had an affair, and my husband would kill me if he found out.' The point is that abortion is such a personal thing, it's hard to imagine yourself needing it until you're in those shoes."

She believes that once young women start tuning in to government policy, "They'll be more activist." After all, "They came of age during the Clinton administration, when we could afford to be complacent. But some of the things the Bush administration is doing — not only in terms of abortion, but in terms of birth control and condoms — might scare them into action."

And, as Swiller points out, the news is not all bad — at least not in California, where Governor Gray Davis recently reaffirmed women's dominion over their bodies by signing into law a bill that declares birth control and abortion decisions protected under existing state privacy-rights statutes. Authored by state Senator Sheila Kuehl, the law would override any U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Roe v. Wade. (Abortion has been legal in the state since 1969, when the California Supreme Court declared the state's law against it unconstitutional.) "It sends an important message," says Swiller, "not only that California is a pro-choice state, and our elected officials need to respect that, but that abortion is a woman's decision. And I think that's what these high school girls are realizing too, that abortion is a decision that's very hard to predict having to make."  

Christine Pelisek contributed to the research and reporting of this story.

*The names of the high school and college subjects in this story have been changed for the sake of privacy.


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