For some, abortion activism begins at conception.
If you’re under 35 years old, you are a post-Roe baby. You were born onto an abortion battleground. Both pro-choice and pro-life advocates want to recruit you into the second generation of the movement. Each side holds tactical advantages in winning your support. To choicers, you’re a young person to whom legalized abortion has always been the norm. To lifers, you’re a “survivor”—-you’ve lived though your aborted “peers” have not. Below, a primer on age-appropriate outreach efforts on both sides of the movement, from conception to college applications.
Publicize your pregnancy—-or your abortion. Pregnant pro-lifers can photograph their fetuses for use in sidewalk anti-abortion campaigns. Face the Truth, an anti-abortion initiative promoted by the Pro-Life Action League, enlarges graphic photographs of fetuses-healthy and aborted-for display on major thoroughfares across America. One common objection to the practice-that it is a “dishonor” to the unborn-is addressed in the league’s FAQ. “We honor these aborted babies’ memories by exposing the cruelties they suffered,” it reads. “What would truly dishonor these children would be to hide the evidence of what was done to them for fear of upsetting some people or looking ‘extreme.'”
As for pro-choicers, Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA, says the pro-life movement doesn’t have sovereignty over the pregnant. “What makes it frustrating is that they have really simple illustrations of what being pro-life means,” says Johnson. “A pregnant anybody is their symbol. For us, it’s a little more complex. The picture runs the gamut for us, from young people who have decided to have children to those who decided not to carry a pregnancy to term.”
Still close to the womb but not old enough to wish they had never been born, babies are natural recruits to the pro-life position. “It’s never too early to start talking about life,” says Pro-Life Action League founder Joe Scheidler, a 35-year veteran of the movement who has raised seven pro-life children and 19 pro-life grandkids.
Sarah Smith Bartel, a 31-year-old Hyattsville grad student, brought her 2-year-old and 5-year-old daughters along when she held vigil outside of D.C.’s Planned Parenthood this fall during the “40 Days for Life” campaign. “When I’ve got my daughters with me, they have a symbolic value,” says Smith Bartel, who first engaged her kids in the movement in D.C.’s annual Roe protest, the “March for Life,” when they were just 1 and 3 years old.
Pro-choice advocates, meanwhile, can earn instant cred by having a baby-and proving that choice doesn’t always lead to abortion. “You come across these young people who will say, ‘I feel like I was an activist from the time I was born,'” says Johnson. “They’ll say, ‘My mom took me to a pro-choice rally when I was 2, or when she was pregnant with me.'”
Once their children reach school, parents can begin their transition from accessory to activist. “We’re pretty successful with kids. They have an intrinsic knowledge that human life is valuable,” adds Scheidler, who tours Catholic elementary schools around the country educating youth about fetal development. By late elementary school, Scheidler’s pro-life content turns explicitly anti-abortion, with the permission of the teacher. “Having prepared them by seeing the child alive, I will show them the photos of what abortion does,” says Scheidler.
Smith Bartel says that her 5-year-old developed her own activist streak only in the past four to five months. “Now that [she’s] older, she has a lot of questions about what we’re doing and what’s going on [at the clinic],” says Smith Bartel of her precocious pro-lifer. “My daughter doesn’t know what football is, but she knows what slavery is, and what racism is, and she knows what abortion is. She’ll stomp around the house, saying, ‘When will this stinking law end?'”
Seeds of reproductive rights awareness can also be sown “as early as first grade,” with the introduction of human sexuality classes in public schools. “A lot of the anti-choice rhetoric gets heard because [pro-lifers] have more access through churches, after-school programs, and even in public schools,” says Johnson, so groups like Choice USA and NARAL Pro-Choice America work legislatively to further comprehensive sex education in schools from elementary on. “I do think it starts with little kids, elementary school kids,” says Johnson. “I don’t mean we’re going to show the STD video to a 5-year-oldŠit’s not all about sex. It’s about communication, self-esteem, and self-empowerment.”
Hit them on their beepers. By the time kids start toting their own cell phones and opting into online social networks, pro-choice groups are ready to reach out with tech-savvy initiatives tailored by age. “The cell phone has become an important symbol of activism,” says Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. Last month, NARAL launched a new youth-oriented Web site, called Free.Will.Power, which Miller says is targeted at youths ages 16 to 24. Among its adolescent-friendly initiatives are automated text message services, YouTube videos, downloadable ringtones, a T-shirt contest, and an online quiz. “Do sexual assault survivors have access to emergency contraception, like the ‘morning-after’ pill in emergency rooms?” one question prompts, before answering, “I know, it’s soooo not okay.”
Those in the pro-life movement have also mobilized to put technology on their side. “Your generation is the first generation that can go to the bookshelf and pull off a VCR cassette, or go to a photo album and see pictures, of what you looked like before you were born,” says Troy Newman, president of pro-life initiative Operation Rescue, who says that the visuals are important evidence against abortion. This is also the age that children of pro-lifers may begin to experience abortion fatigue-and rebellious tweens may defect to the pro-choice movement. “You can turn people off. They get tired of it,” says Scheidler, who also says that it’s important for pro-life families to take an abortion vacation once in a while. “You have to do other things sometimes,” he says. “If we go on a family trip, I don’t talk about it too much.”
Adopt an activist. Most pro-choice efforts ramp up in high school, where most young adults become sexually active, making abortion a personal possibility as well as a political one. They also begin to develop an interest in social justice-and start looking to beef up their college applications. In addition to NARAL’s Web-based efforts, Choice USA offers sex-ed and community-organizing training to local charter schools, and many of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s college chapters adopt high school groups for reproductive rights mentoring.
Generations for Life, the youth wing of the Pro-Life Action League, encourages high school groups to raise money for pregnancy crisis centers and stage walks and hiking excursions for life. For pro-life high schoolers, the ultimate destination is Washington, D.C.—-Missy Smith, a local activist who founded Wake Up (Women Against the Killing and Exploitation of Unprotected Persons) estimates that as many as 25,000 high school and college students attend a youth Mass at the Verizon Center each year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
In high school, the pro-life set also focuses on abortion as a social issue-and begins folding in its anti-abortion message with such high school history class milestones as slavery and the Holocaust. “Your generation has been targeted for extinction,” says Newman of the post-Roes. “Many Jewish people feel that their aunts and uncles were targeted for extinction. Many African people feel that about slavery. My generation doesn’t understand that.”
Photo courtesy of the Pro-Life Action League.