As more than a million people moved slowly en masse toward the Washington Monument, Nina Sorokin, a 19-year-old freshman at Durham Technical Community College, found herself swept up in the crowd. “When I first got off the Metro, it was like a river,” she recalls. “I would try to cross it and it just dragged me along for a while.” Pink T-shirts and multi-colored signs obscured the buildings along the National Mall.
Sorokin had been selected as one of 10 student organizers in the country to march with the celebrities at the front of the line. But she couldn’t make her way to the front, so she decided to go with the flow. “It was just incredibly impressive how many people there were,” she says. “I didn’t realize how amazing it really was going to be. I didn’t know so many people felt that way.”
She was moved by the sight of families marching together, women pushing strollers, pregnant women with the words “my choice” drawn on their exposed bellies, and by the many different social and religious groups that showed their support. “I thought it illustrated democracy,” Sorokin says. “Some people were chanting, ‘This is what democracy looks like.’ I liked that.”
She was also moved by the comparatively very small group of anti-abortion demonstrators who lined the march route. She says she feels sympathy for them. “I have respect for both sides. They have a right to be there and a right to have their opinion.” Some held up the gory pictures anti-abortion demonstrators are known for. “There were these crazy men who were yelling, saying women should go back in the kitchen,” she laughs, “but there were a bunch of women holding signs saying, ‘Women deserve better than an abortion.’” She felt that she had much in common with those women, standing by quiet and sincere as scores of other women walked by carrying pro-choice signs. “I understand how they feel,” she says. “Having them there almost underscores my beliefs. The whole reason to be pro-choice is that it’s such a complicated issue.”
It was the first political demonstration Sorokin had ever attended. She has not yet had the opportunity to vote in a presidential election. But this shy college freshman represents the emerging voice of the pro-choice movement, a generation that grew up after the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
The loud and visible presence of these college-aged women and men at the April 25 March for Women’s Lives has drawn attention to the fact that not only are the majority of Americans pro-choice, but the majority of pro-choice Americans are under 30–the age group that’s historically least likely to vote. Their forebears hope the fight to keep abortion rights might at last inspire them to take political action. One thing’s for sure: Young activists will do things their own way.
The movement’s old guard has long feared that a generation raised after Roe cannot know the urgency of abortion rights firsthand. The symbol of the coat hanger and stories of women who bled to death after back-alley abortions may be powerful reminders, but for young women they’re symbols of a distant past. Young women have grown up with freedoms and choices they didn’t have to fight for, with a feeling that they can do anything they want. They’re motivated by their very sense of entitlement: to contraception, to social mobility, to make their own decisions. And their concept of choice as a full range of options–the choice of birth control, the choice to have an abortion, the choice to stay home and raise a child–enables them to take on the unfinished business of the feminist movement. They’re sensitive to the emotional and moral complexities of abortion, and are more willing than their battle-worn predecessors to empathize with pro-life ideals while seeing no contradiction to their own pro-choice values. Unlike the “second wave” of feminist activists, this third wave has grown up in the age of the international women’s movement, aware of racism and of the way U.S. family-planning policies affect the rest of the world. That makes them better equipped to call out the contradictions of abstinence-only education, funding cuts to family planning agencies and pay inequities. Whether the new generation can secure abortion rights for the future and end the polarizing debate of the past 30 years is unclear. But when the new generation takes the reigns, the crisis could subside.
Sorokin is new to the pro-choice cause–to any cause. A bashful, articulate young woman with deep-set brown eyes, a soft voice and rosy cheeks, she wears her blond hair in a ponytail. She grew up in a Russian Orthodox home where sex was never discussed and “liberals” were referred to with a scowl. “I sort of thought I was pro-choice but I wasn’t exactly sure why. My father would just be like, ‘Abortion is wrong,’ for all the reasons you’ve heard people say it’s wrong. And I just knew there had to be more to it.”
Less than a year ago, she started discussing the issue with her girlfriends, and a mutual friend introduced her to Natalie Fixmer, a 24-year-old organizer for Planned Parenthood. The two had a marathon discussion one evening that made Sorokin eager to learn more. A few weeks later, she came to a Planned Parenthood activist training session, which inspired her to organize her fellow students at Durham Tech.
On a March afternoon, in jeans and chunky brown boots, she walks down the busy painted-cinderblock hallway of the liberal arts building, smiling. Her English professor leans out of his doorway to say, “Hi, Nina.” On the bulletin board, there’s a flyer with information about the upcoming march; about half of the phone number slips have been taken.
Durham Tech isn’t the kind of campus that activists usually try to organize. There are no dorms, so all of its students commute; many of them work full- or part-time, and there are few organized campus activities. “If you go to UNC, you go to socialize and learn about yourself, to grow as an individual,” Sorokin says. “The people here do that in other aspects of their lives, but when you go to Durham Tech, it’s for education. It’s even hard to make friends, because people aren’t here to make friends, they’re here to go to chemistry class and then go home.”
Nevertheless, she found people at Durham Tech to be surprisingly receptive. The afternoon we speak, she and Fixmer have just found out that the college’s single parent club will co-sponsor the campus rally they’re planning. In the student cafe, most people are sitting by themselves eating lunch, reading or looking at the TV at the front of the room, which shows MTV on mute. R&B music pours out of the cafeteria. There’s an Army recruiting poster on the wall, video games in the corner. A few people are sitting around playing cards. This is about as social as it gets. “But it’s still amazing how even in [this] environment, how positive of a turnout we’re getting. They basically come to me.”
In order to get students’ attention, Sorokin started asking permission from teachers to make classroom announcements. “I just basically say, ‘I’m a volunteer from Planned Parenthood,’ and I usually get a lot of smiles. ‘I just want to let you guys know about the largest pro-choice march in history and I want you to at least know about it.’ But I always say, it’s far more than just pro-choice, it’s about you being able to choose how your government is run, the policies, you standing up and saying this is how I want my life to be. By going and supporting this, you’re supporting your right to be who you want to be. If you want to support that sort of control in your life, support this.
“One of the first times I did an announcement,” she continues, “the boy behind me signed his name, and he sort of tapped me on the shoulder later and he acted like he was embarrassed and he said, ‘Is this just a girl thing? Should I not have signed my name?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not! This is definitely a boy and girl thing.’ It affects men and women, because it’s your mother, your childhood. It affects the way you’re raised; to be having the woman who gives birth to you choose when she has you, when she feels that she’s ready.”
Gallup Polls show that 18-to-29-year-old women are more likely to consider themselves pro-choice than their counterparts who are 30 to 49 (54 percent versus 51); the older the woman, the more likely she is to oppose abortion. But within the pro-choice movement, there has yet to be a shift in leadership. Second-wave feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. magazine, and Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation still lead the charge.
Natalie Fixmer, the Planned Parenthood organizer who first inspired Sorokin, is well aware of the pre-Roe/post-Roe dilemma within the movement. “I was talking to a woman who was in her early 70s,” says Fixmer. “This woman was expressing to me how grateful she was to see a couple of young people in that room. She said, ‘I just wish young women would understand what it means to live in a world without safe and legal abortion… I wish that they would care about this issue.’ She said, ‘I’ve been holding this torch, and it’s burning my hand.’” Fixmer laughs. “She was ready to pass the torch.”
Ready, perhaps, but reluctant.
“I think one thing that marks young feminists is a sense of entitlement,” Fixmer reflects, “and I don’t say that in a bad way. What I mean is that, for a lot of women in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a moment of, ‘Aha! Well, why shouldn’t I be able to have a career? And why is it that I’m supposed to be a mother and a wife, and why isn’t that enough for me? Am I a bad woman for thinking that?’ But for a generation that’s raised post-Roe, post-Title IX, there’s this sense of, ‘Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to do anything and everything that my brothers get to do.’ There’s a sense of, ‘I can do anything that I want to do.’”
“Anything” includes some options that second-wavers weren’t fighting for in the early ’70s, back before women were expected to work. “I think one thing that feminism has not accomplished is the division of labor,” Fixmer says. “Now there’s this strange reverse stigma of women who choose to stay home, because that’s still not respected in our society. We need to do the work of making domestic labor valued in our society so it’s respectable, not only for women to choose but for men to choose as well. We haven’t done that yet.”
To inspire the next generation of support, Fixmer and a handful of organizers from other area pro-choice groups rent a van to trek to college campuses for a “March Against Madness” tour, traveling east to west across the state about a month before the D.C. event. As Sorokin prepares for the Durham Tech rally, the van crew makes their first stop at UNC-Wilmington, where an active Planned Parenthood office helps many of the town’s teenage mothers, but goes largely unnoticed by college students.
The white van pulls on to the sidewalk in front of the student union building. Organizers and student volunteers set up a hand-painted banner and tables, where they lay out informational pamphlets, stickers, energy bars, condoms and packs of candy-flavored lubricant to give away. There are also T-shirts available for $10–one style comes in jewel-tone colors with “Pro-Choice Rock Star” on the front, along with the words “NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.” (Another popular style, “I (heart) pro-choice boys,” has already sold out.) Pop songs pour out of the open windows of the van as students write “March 4 Women’s Lives” with chalk on the sidewalks.
Two young women dressed neatly in black pants and jackets smile as they talk to their friends and gather e-mail addresses to promote the march. Janelle Welch and Laura Towery are students who volunteer for the local Planned Parenthood’s adolescent parenting program, which helps about a dozen teen mothers take care of their babies and prevent a second pregnancy. “We’re just trying to take them to doctors’ appointments, make sure they keep on track and make sure they get a high school diploma,” says Welch. Many of her friends think of Planned Parenthood as “an abortion place,” she says; they don’t realize that it offers sex education, birth control and parental support.
Thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor, Planned Parenthood has a new downtown office in Wilmington with an exam room, on-site lab and rooms for educational programs. In a room filled with toys and leaflets, a banner hangs on the wall with felt letters that say, “Every person is valued and loved and makes a difference.”
The next day, the same van and tables are set up in front of the Freedom of Expression tunnel on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. Even after the van load of organizers leave for their next stop, the student volunteers keep handing out flyers and answering questions while a rock band sets up to play in support of the cause.
Meghan Murphy, a freshman, smiles in a friendly, dreamy sort of way. Today is her first day as a pro-choice volunteer, and she’s stirring up a lot of interest from the young men. One guy asks if he can hand out flyers, too. “They’re like, ‘What’s up? I’m down with the pro-choice,” she says, amused. Murphy says she was raised Catholic and she seems glad to be away from home. She wears low-rider jeans, a green hoodie and a pin on her black messenger bag that says, “The war on drugs is fucking stupid.”
Alina Johnson, a junior in philosophy, sits at the table. “I’ve always been pro-choice,” she says, “but now I’m really just scared and devastated with the way the administration is handling women’s rights and personal rights.”
A Raleigh band called Nathan Asher and the Infantry begins to play just as a scruffy, middle-aged man stands up and starts reading what sound like disjointed Bible passages. Johnson and Murphy identify him as one of those guys who hangs around campus goading students into religious arguments. “Play it loud!” Johnson hollers, as the amps roar with guitar chords that drown out the man’s voice.
“I think the generation that actually runs this country are two or three generations above us,” Johnson says, “and we’ve got to make an effort to stand up for what we believe is important. There are a lot of people who believe in personal freedom and personal rights. But all we do is sit around and complain about it. That’s one of the reasons I love this band.”
Asher, the singer, introduces the band. “We are representing NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” he says. They play a song called “The Last Election,” which urges people to vote–this election, the song suggests, could be the last chance to prevent catastrophe. About 100 people stop to listen as music fills the quad.
Later that day, on the rain-soaked campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, Kate Michelman is introduced to a small, enthusiastic crowd of students and organizers who hold signs. Michelman has been head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the most influential pro-choice advocacy group in the nation, for the past 20 years. Many of the students assembled didn’t know her name until this afternoon.
After the short rally, Michelman installs herself in an office on campus to rest and give interviews before her evening speech. She had already announced her plans to step down after the march. “I am astonished that I’m about to step down after 20 years at NARAL and we still don’t have a nation that embraces the goal of making abortion less necessary rather than more difficult, and addresses the conditions that cause three million women every year to face an unintended pregnancy. Instead, we focus on robbing women of their right to have an abortion, we focus on the morality of abortion. We don’t have equal focus on the morality of child caring, the morality of parenting, which is a highly moral responsibility we take on as we embark on bringing new life into the world. But we don’t hear any debate about that, and about creating the conditions for life in the world at large.”
The idea of generational differences is particularly pressing to Michelman in the last few months of her tenure at NARAL. She sees the contrast as one of experience. “Pre-Roe, women were fighting for their lives,” she says, “fighting for our right and need to control the direction of our lives and have the ability to have families when we knew we were ready to have them and be successful at it, rather than being forced by law to bear children or to risk our lives in unsafe, back-alley abortions.” Michelman views the struggle for abortion rights as part of the direct path toward citizenship and political equality that began with the suffrage movement in the early 20th century. “The pre-Roe effort was really about women achieving rights and liberties that were never achieved in the Constitution, and to have the Constitution recognize those rights.
“Post-Roe, women assume those rights,” she says. “They assume certain liberties, they assume certain control over their lives, not only their reproductive life but the rest of their lives. So the reality for post-Roe women is different.”
There are many experiences that American women raised after Roe have never had. “But their own experience is of enormous importance in that they are right to assume that they have equal place with men in this society. They have a right to assume that their reproductive life is one that they will determine. And they have a right to assume that they will have access to the means to effectuate their choices.”
If abortion rights roll back, Michelman says lots of other choices will vanish next. “It may be hard for women today to believe this, but the anti-choice movement is not just about abortion. Access to birth control is also at risk, and anyone who thinks differently needs to look over the last many years as how many times the Congress and some state legislatures have taken aim at family planning programs, trying to make certain forms of birth control inaccessible to women, or illegal.” Look at history, Michelman says: The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t make contraception legal for single women until 1972–just one year before Roe v. Wade. The justices didn’t make it legal for married couples to use contraception until 1965.
If states begin to regulate abortion, Michelman predicts they will also claim the right to regulate and ban certain forms of birth control, such as the IUD and the birth control pill, which offend religious conservatives who believe life begins at conception. They also oppose fertility methods such as in-vitro fertilization. Despite being approved by the FDA, emergency contraception (aka the morning-after pill), which induces a menstrual period up to 72 hours after sex in order to prevent pregnancy, is difficult to get. Wal-Mart has refused to stock it in their pharmacies.
Michelman is a warrior in a decades-long conflict that has not yet been won. She emphasizes the urgency of this moment in political history. “This generation today must understand that it’s only through their active involvement in the struggle to protect these rights, to defend them, that we will keep them.”
Among those assembled to hear Michelman speak that evening are several young men wearing white T-shirts and backwards baseball caps. One of them tells me he’s here because it’s required for his women’s studies class. Much has changed since 1973.
I ask another man in attendance, Matthew Horvath, if he thinks men of his generation are more likely to actively support the pro-choice movement than their predecessors. “Honestly, if that’s true, then it troubles me, because I don’t feel like men are nearly concerned enough,” he says. Horvath, 22, is a senior women’s studies major and an organizer with Choice USA, one of several pro-choice groups on the UNC campus.
This isn’t the first march Horvath’s attended in Washington, D.C.: When he was 15, he attended a major anti-abortion rally with his Catholic church group. In college, he abandoned his aspiration to be a priest. In his mind, Christian morality usually involves “forsaking the freedoms of others so you can feel a little bit better about what you’re not doing yourself.
“That’s a way to take a stance on morality without actually acting morally. That’s the best kind of morality to have, really,” he says sarcastically, “the kind you don’t have to pay for. I see that too much in men of my generation or in any generation. [Bush] campaigns on morality, on a Christian moral system, but his economic policy is anything but.”
Though he’s young and fairly new to the cause, Horvath already feels a weariness that many Americans can relate to. “The abortion debate’s been going on for 50 years now and it hasn’t moved that far in either direction,” he says. “The pro-life and pro-choice movements, I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere constructive. It feels like we’re getting louder and louder, and we’re losing more and more of the middle that’s not so committed either way. That’s kind of a shame. I think we do have a lot of goals in common, and I wish we could get along better, enough to work towards those.” Preventing abortions and unwanted pregnancies would seem to be a common goal. “I think we could both certainly work together on contraceptives, and more responsible sex ed. Even if you’re going to say that life begins at conception, then certainly condoms would still be OK, and responsible sex education should be a duty of any society. If we can’t come to terms even with that, with preventing unwanted pregnancies, it seems a shame.”
The next day is the Durham Tech rally–Sorokin’s big day. She stands outside in the quad with the pro-choice organizers, with the banner and tables set up. Nearly everyone who walks by stops at the metal picnic table to take information, offer an email address for the newsletters, and ask questions of the activists. A group of women stand in the shelter of the library entrance to socialize–all are wearing pro-choice stickers. “People are really receptive here,” says a volunteer from Ipas, an international family planning organization, “more so than in downtown Chapel Hill.”
By the day of the march, Sorokin had convinced even more people to go, including her older brother and five of his friends, who rode up together on one of the dozens of buses that left the Triangle at 5 a.m. Sunday morning and returned that night after 11 p.m.
Energized by the experience, Sorokin still thinks of those women on the sidelines. She feels a deep desire to reach common ground. “I’d just like to say that being pro-choice is pro-life–that’s the whole idea.” she says. “It’s respecting and supporting life, just from a slightly different point of view, from a more global and more practical point of view. We’re actually fighting for the exact same belief, the beauty and importance of life and motherhood.”