Choice Up Front
January 22, 2007
Jordan Conn is young, pretty, and she's a college student at a top university. She also happens to have had an abortion. But she not a statistic, she's a person--and an activist. "I think that it's important that we're open about the issue," she explains. "If we want change, we--especially college women--need to talk about [abortion]."
This is the idea behind the Feminist Campus "We Had Abortions" campaign. Feminist Campus, the student wing of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), the organization that publishes "Ms." Magazine, is re-enacting a campaign that coincided with the very first issue of "Ms." in 1972. The magazine published a list including the names of fifty-three American women, including Gloria Steinem, who had had illegal abortions and were demanding reproductive rights.
Over 30 years later, many women take their reproductive rights for granted. But, as "Ms." And Feminist Campus hope to illustrate, those rights are being increasingly restricted in the US. In developing nations, the situation is much worse. According to the Foundation, approximately 70,000 women and girls outside the US die each year from botched and unsafe abortions.
The FMF began a general We Had Abortions Campaign last year that was signed by some 5,000 woman of a variety of ages. Now, they have launched a campaign specifically geared toward today's college students, in an effort to get them involved as the new faces of an old struggle.
Next Generation Rights
As Crystal Lander, the Campus Program Director for the Feminist Majority Foundation, points out, college-aged women are often directly affected by access to abortion. "Generally," she explains, "when [most of us] have a friend who has had an abortion, it has been during her college years." According to the, Alan Guttmacher Institute around half of all abortions in the US are had by women under the age of 25. Nineteen percent occur in women ages 15-19. While the majority of college students are legally able to have abortions (as most are over 18), access can sometimes be an issue, especially if a student cannot afford the procedure or is attending school in a state where clinics are scarce.
The campaign, which was launched in December 2006, is aimed at gathering signatures from students who are comfortable acknowledging the fact that they have had abortions. The petitions will be gathered through the end of March and will delivered to the White House, members of Congress, and state legislatures. By signing the petition, young women are not only opening up about their experiences, they are also calling for the nullification of laws that curtail reproductive rights, such as the Hyde Amendment and parental notification laws. In addition, some women are simply signing the petition in solidarity and alliance with other women who have had abortions.
The campaign has initially reached young women via the Feminist Campus e-newsletter, and through personal contact on campuses where there are Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance chapters and where former interns may be attending school.
Meanwhile, Ms. has also been gathering signatures by non-students for their own general "We Had Abortions" campaign. But the Feminist Campus campaign stands out as a testament to the difference in the two demographics' approach to choice. Conn feels that most of the college students she encounters, especially at Wesleyan are progressive and pro-choice, so they might not "get" the activism necessary to preserve the rights they so appreciate. "Some people think it's a dead issue," she says. "People think we'll always have these rights, or they think, 'I'm upper middle class, abortion will also be available to me.' This [campaign] is reminding people that abortion is still an issue because at the end of the day, if you get rights taken away, it's going to be very hard to get them back."
Not all young women take abortion for granted, however. Audrey Sylvestre leads the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance at Cerritos College, a community college in Los Angeles county. Sylvestre plans to start circulating the petition this week. And she hopes it has the potential to open the dialogue about reproductive freedom on her campus because she believes there's "a lot at stake" for many of the female students.
"There are a lot of women who are going to school and trying to make something out of themselves who say, 'I would never have an abortion,' but you can't really predict how you're going to react in that moment, if it comes up," she says. "So I think it's important that they understand that we need to have the option to be able to do it--and it will affect their futures greatly, if they want to have an abortion, and aren't able to. It's a critical point in their lives."
The majority of the students at Cerritos are Hispanic and come from traditional, religious families, so the group faces a great deal of opposition when discussing reproductive rights. Fortunately, when there are real, tangible people attached to the controversy, the abortion argument takes on a new face.
"[Most students'] biggest concern is usually that their parents will see [the petition], says Sylvestre. "But once you get the ball rolling, and you start talking to people, they'll say 'oh well, I know someone who had one' and the more you talk about it, you'll find out that a lot more people have had them than you think."
Privacy Versus Secrecy
Some people who believe in a woman's right to choose, might worry that being too public about the choice to have an abortion will further endanger that right. In a recent blog entry, for example, law student Lily Graypure shared her skepticism. She wrote, "What I can't understand is how this helps the Pro-Choice image. I question the timing. With the Roberts court showing a hint of how they view privacy in the "no knock" rule, and the right to an abortion resting on the right to privacy, is now really the time to be like, 'PSssssshhh, an abortion ain't private?'"
Of course, the right to privacy is different than secrecy. And, ironically, being open about one's choices--even the ones that are not simple or easy to make--can often help do away with larger patterns of shame.
"I think, personally, [talking about abortion] is hard to do. But I don't think it would be as hard if people didn't think it was such a bad thing," says Conn. She is setting an example; through her activism with Feminist Campus, she has been interviewed and featured in several newspaper articles, TV segments, and radio shows talking about why she thinks more women need to be candid about reproductive rights.
"There shouldn't be a stigma attached," Lander adds. "Everyone has different reasons for needing or wanting to have an abortion and we're tired of men making decisions about women bodies."
But, as Conn notes, "there haven't been as many celebrities who have had abortions coming forward and advocating for reproductive rights [this time]," in comparison to the original outcry for legal abortions in the 1970's. People might take abortion for granted, but that hasn't made it any easier to discuss.
If the "We Had Abortions" succeeds, the campaign may help shift some young people's thinking about the issue, simply because they will realize how ubiquitous and common it is for today's young woman to have had the experience at some point in her life. And, despite stereotypes about the procedure--that it is used for convenience, that it encourage women to be irresponsible--Conn is a testament to the fact that it can do the exact opposite; it can make you a responsible advocate for your peers.
"Let's talk about abortions, so the people who have had them don't feel so alone," she says. "Let's not just make it pro-life vs. pro-choice--just making it a discussion again is what we're primarily after."
Want to learn more? Visit FeministCampus.org. Liz Funk is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and college student. She has written for the Huffington Post, Newsday and the New Humanist (UK), and is a frequent contributor to WireTap. Visit the feminist blog she writes for the Albany Times Union at http://blogs.timesunion.com.