Like many young Americans, Brea Baker experienced her first moment of political outrage after the killing of a black man. She was 18 when Trayvon Martin was shot. When she saw his photo on the news, she thought of her younger brother, and the boundary between her politics and her sense of survival collapsed.
In college she volunteered for the N.A.A.C.P. and as a national organizer for the Women’s March. But when conversations among campus activists turned to abortion access, she didn’t feel the same sense of personal rage.
“A lot of the language I heard was about protecting Roe v. Wade,” Ms. Baker, 26, said. “It felt grounded in the ’70s feminist movement. And it felt like, I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying. The narrative around abortion access wasn’t made for people from the hood.”
Ms. Baker has attended protests against police brutality in Atlanta in recent weeks, but the looming Supreme Court decision on reproductive health, June Medical Services v. Russo, felt more distant. As she learned more about the case and other legal threats to abortion access, she wished that advocates would talk about the issue in a way that felt urgent to members of Generation Z and young millennials like her.
“It’s not that young people don’t care about abortion, it’s that they don’t think it applies to them,” she said. Language about “protecting Roe” feels “antiquated,” she added. “If I’m a high school student who got activated by March for Our Lives, I’m not hip to Supreme Court cases that happened before my time.”
Her question, as she kept her eyes on the court, was: “How can we reframe it so it feels like a young woman’s fight?”
On Monday the Supreme Court ruled on the case, striking down a Louisiana law that required abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, four years after deciding that an effectively identical Texas requirement was unconstitutional because it placed an “undue burden” on safe abortion access. The Guttmacher Institute had estimated that 15 states could potentially put similarly restrictive laws on the books if the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law.
The leaders of reproductive rights organizations celebrated their victory with caution. At least 16 cases that would restrict access to legal abortion remain in lower courts, and 25 abortion bans have been enacted in more than a dozen states in the last year.
“The fight is far from over,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, the president of Planned Parenthood. “Our vigilance continues, knowing the makeup of the court as well as the federal judiciary is not in our favor.”
But interviews with more than a dozen young women who have taken to the streets for racial justice reflected some ambivalence about their role in the movement for reproductive rights.
Some, raised in a post-Roe world, do not feel the same urgency toward abortion as they do for other social justice causes; others want to ensure that the fight is broadly defined, with an emphasis on racial disparities in reproductive health.
Members of Gen Z and millennials are more progressive than older generations; they’ve also been politically active, whether organizing a global climate strike or mass marches against gun violence in schools.
But Gen Z women do not identify abortion as one of the most important issues to them, according to a 2019 survey from Ignite, a nonpartisan group focused on young women’s political education. Mass shootings, climate change and education rank highest. On the right, meanwhile, researchers say that opposition to abortion has become more central to young people’s political beliefs.
Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College who studies young women’s political beliefs, said that Gen Z women predominantly believe in reproductive freedom but that some believe it is less pressing because they see it as a “given,” having grown up in a world of legalized abortion.
“Myself and other activists in my community are focused on issues that feel like immediate life or death, like the environment,” said Kaitlin Ahern, 19, who was raised in Scranton, Pa., in a community where air quality was low because of proximity to a landfill. “It’s easier to disassociate from abortion rights.”
Fatimata Cham, 19, an ambassador for the anti-gun violence advocacy group Youth Over Guns, agreed that the fight for reproductive rights felt less personal. “For many activists, we have a calling, a realm of work we want to pursue because of our own personal experiences,” Ms. Cham said. “Growing up, abortion never came to mind as an issue I needed to work on.”
These young women recognized that while some American women can now gain easy access to abortion, millions more cannot; at least five states have only one abortion clinic.
But some said that while they considered reproductive rights an important factor in determining how they vote, they struggled to see how their activism on the issue could have an effect.
When Ms. Baker helped coordinate local walkouts against gun violence, she sensed that young people no longer needed to wait for “permission” to demand change. With abortion advocacy, she said, organizers seem focused on waiting for decisions from the highest courts.
And even as those decisions move through the courts, the possibility of a future without legal abortion can feel implausible. “I know we have a lot to lose, but it’s hard to imagine us going backward,” said Alliyah Logan, 18, a recent high school graduate from the Bronx. “Is it possible to go that far back?”
Then she added: “Of course in this administration, anything is possible.”
For many women in the 1970s and ’80s, fighting for legal abortion was an essential aspect of being a feminist activist. A 1989 march for reproductive rights drew crowds larger than most protests since the Vietnam War, with more than half a million women rallying in Washington, D.C.
Today, young women who define themselves as progressive and politically active do not always consider the issue central to their identities, said Johanna Schoen, a professor of history at Rutgers and the author of “Abortion After Roe.”
“Women in the ’70s understood very clearly that having control over reproduction is central to women’s ability to determine their own futures, to get the education they want, to have careers,” Dr. Schoen said. “As people got used to having access to abortion — and there’s a false sense that we’ve achieved a measure of equality — that radicalism women had in the early years got lost.”
Some millennial women who can easily and safely get abortions do not connect the experience to their political activism. Cynthia Gutierrez, 30, a community organizer in California, got a medication abortion in 2013. Because she did not struggle with medical access or insurance, the experience did not immediately propel her toward advocacy.
“I had no idea about the political landscape around it,” she said. “I had no idea that other people had challenges with access or finding a clinic or being able to afford an abortion.”
Around that time, Ms. Gutierrez began working at a criminal justice reform organization. “I wasn’t thinking, let me go to the next pro-choice rally,” she said. “The racial justice and criminal justice work I did felt more relevant because I had people in my life who had gone through the prison industrial complex, and I experienced discrimination.”
Other young women said they felt less drawn to reproductive rights messaging that is focused strictly on legal abortion access, and more drawn to messaging about racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to abortion, widely referred to as reproductive justice.
Deja Foxx, 20, a college student from Tucson, Ariz., became involved in reproductive justice advocacy when she confronted former Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, at a town hall event over his push to defund Planned Parenthood.
But abortion access is not what initially drew her to the movement. She wanted to fight for coverage of contraceptives, as someone who was then homeless and uninsured, and for comprehensive sex education, since her high school’s curriculum did not mention the word consent.
“There’s a need to protect the wins of the generation before us,” Ms. Foxx said. But she believes the conversations that engage members of her generation look different. “My story is about birth control access as a young person who didn’t have access to insurance,” she said.
The generational shift is evident at national gatherings for abortion providers. Ms. Schoen has attended the National Abortion Federation’s annual conference each year from 2003 to 2019. In recent years, she said, its attendees have grown more racially diverse and the agenda has shifted, from calls to keep abortion “safe, legal and rare” to an emphasis on racial equity in abortion access.
“The political questions and demands that the younger generation raises are very different,” she said. “There’s more of a focus on health inequalities and lack of access that black and brown women have to abortion.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, even the most fundamental legal access to abortion seemed in question in some states. At least nine states took steps to temporarily ban abortions, deeming them elective or not medically necessary, although all the bans were challenged in court.
Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic led to various new legal and logistical hurdles. In South Dakota, abortion providers have been unable to travel to their clinics from out of state. In Arkansas, women could receive abortions only with a negative Covid-19 swab within 72 hours of the procedure, and some have struggled to get tested.
But in spite of the threats, for some young women the calls to action feel sharpest when they go beyond defending rights they were raised with.
“Right now, in a lot of social justice movements we’re seeing language about the future,” said Molly Brodsky, 25. “I hear ‘protect Roe v. Wade,’ and it feels like there needs to be another clause about the future we’re going to build. What other changes do we need? We can’t be complacent with past wins.”