NY Times Highlights Aging Feminists' Anxiety Over Abortion

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times Correspondent | NewsBusters.orgSheryl Gay Stolberg devoted most of her article in Sunday’s New York Times detailing the concerns of radical feminists over the future of legalized abortion, specifically its support among the younger generations. Stolberg tried to downplay the larger opposition to abortion in the 18-30 year old demographic, and only one of the pro-abortion activists that she quoted in her article belonged to this group.

The New York Times correspondent began her article, “In Support of Abortion, It’s Personal vs. Political,” with a sympathetic personal anecdote from one of the aging radicals, Representative Louise Slaughter of New York: “In the early 1950s, a coal miner’s daughter from rural Kentucky named Louise McIntosh encountered the shadowy world of illegal abortion. A friend was pregnant...and Ms. McIntosh was keeper of a secret that, if spilled, could have led to family disgrace. The turmoil ended quietly in a doctor’s office... Today, Louise McIntosh is Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York. At 80, she is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus — a member of what Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, calls ‘the menopausal militia.’”

This so-called militia, and the wider “abortion rights movement,” according to Stolberg, has been “forced...to turn inward, raising questions about how to carry their agenda forward in a complex, 21st-century world.” The reason: “a generational divide — not because younger women are any less supportive of abortion rights than their elders, but because their frame of reference is different.” The correspondent continued that “[p]olls over the last two decades have shown that a clear majority of Americans support the right to abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those over 30 and under 30, but the vocabulary of the debate has shifted with the political culture.”

Actually, contrary to Stolberg’s assertion, polls from recent years has pointed to a substantive gap between the generations over the abortion issue. Earlier in 2009, Pew Research found wider support among the 50-64 group (58%) than in the 18-29 group (52%). Another poll, conducted by Harris Interactive in August 2007, found that 45% of those in the 18-30 group supported “abortion rights,” versus 55% in the 31-42 (Generation X) group, and 54% amongst Baby Boomers (the poll also found declining support for baby-killing procedure in all demographics). The 2006 General Social Survey, asking a more specific question (support for abortion for any reason), found 36.2% support in the 18-30 age group, versus 39.7% in the 31-44 demographic and 43.7% in the 45-64 group.

Later in her article, the New York Times correspondent quoted extensively from two liberals- Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, and the aforementioned Nancy Keenan. She included only one quote from a pro-lifer, Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life:

“Here is a generation that has never known a time when abortion has been illegal,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who studies attitudes toward abortion. “For many of them, the daily experience is: It’s legal and if you really need one you can probably figure out how to get one. So when we send out e-mail alerts saying, ‘Oh my God, write to your senator,’ it’s hard for young people to have that same sense of urgency.”

Polls over the last two decades have shown that a clear majority of Americans support the right to abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those over 30 and under 30, but the vocabulary of the debate has shifted with the political culture. Ms. Keenan, who is 57, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was illegal, tend to view it in stark political terms — as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But younger people tend to view abortion as a personal issue, and their interests are different.

The 30- to 40-somethings — “middle-school moms and dads,” Ms. Keenan calls them — are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights. Naral is running focus groups with these “millennials” to better learn how they think.

“The language and values, if you are older, is around the right to control your own body, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation as empowerment,” said Ms. Greenberg, the pollster. “That is a baby-boom generation way of thinking. If you look at people under 30, that is not their touchstone, it is not wrapped up around feminism and women’s rights.”

Abortion opponents are reveling in the shift and hope to capitalize. “Not only is this the post-Roe generation, I’d also call it the post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who notes that baby’s first video now occurs in the womb, often accompanied by music. “They can take the video and do the music and send it to the grandmother. We don’t even talk anymore about the hypothesis that having an abortion is like having an appendectomy. All of this informs the political pressures on Capitol Hill.”

Stolberg also highlighted the efforts of two other pro-abortion women- Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Serena Freewomyn (yes, that’s her actual name):

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and chief deputy whip of the House, blames what she calls the complacency of her own generation for the political climate that allowed Mr. Stupak to prevail [specifically, the passage of his pro-life amendment to the House health care “reform” bill]. At 43, the mother of three children, she has taken up the abortion rights cause in Congress, as she did as a state legislator.

But if she had to round up her own friends “to go down to the courthouse steps and rally for choice,” she said, she is not certain she could. When older women have warned that reproductive rights are being eroded, she said, “basically my generation and younger have looked at them as crying wolf.”

That is not to say all younger women are indifferent. Serena Freewomyn (a name she adopted to reflect the idea that “I don’t belong to any man”) is a 27-year-old administrative assistant at an H.I.V. service provider in Tucson who was inspired, she said, by reading “The War on Choice” by Gloria Feldt. When George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who performed abortions, was killed in May, she started a blog, Feminists for Choice.

“I think that a lot of younger women do take for granted the fact that they’ve come of age in a time of post-Roe v. Wade, where they have access to lots of different birth control options,” Ms. Freewomyn said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to say younger women are not engaged; I think younger women are mobilizing in different ways than what people in current leadership positions are used to.”

...Ms. Wasserman Schultz sees the debate as a chance to rouse women of all generations, and Ms. Slaughter warns that if Mr. Obama signs a bill including the amendment, it will be challenged in court. She says she has worried for years about what would happen “when my generation was gone.”
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center