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Body Politics

What drives the new generation of pro-choice activists?



By Ben Joravsky

Chris Mather was two years old when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

She has, she says, no firsthand memory of that decision. For her the case known as Roe v. Wade is little more than a legal name in history books.

Yet as the 25th anniversary of the landmark ruling looms in late January, Mather finds herself at the forefront of local efforts to preserve the reproductive rights established by Roe and eroded by recent laws and court rulings.

And she's not alone. Many of the key leaders of the local abortion-rights movement are 20-something women who have no personal memories of the unwanted pregnancies and back-alley abortions that fueled the efforts of earlier feminists. The torch has been passed to a second generation of activists.

"I don't know why so many of the new leaders in the pro-choice movement are under 30--it certainly defies the overall apathy of our times," says Mather, who is executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Illinois. "Maybe it's because our generation has a fundamental belief in personal liberties."

There's a paradox. Since Roe, abortions have become much easier for middle- and upper-income women to obtain, yet it's now much more dangerous to take a strong stand for choice. Some pro-life zealots, who believe their cause is greater than any law made by mortals, aren't content to restrict their protests to letters and marches. Clinics have been bombed, doctors shot, and Planned Parenthood offices attacked.

But the young activists remain resolute. Christine Viera, the 29-year-old cochair of the local NARAL board, says she inherited her views from her parents, political activists since the 60s.

"In my home, everyone was prochoice," says Viera. "I grew up in a very progressive household--my mother was an activist and she raised me to get involved. I was the kind of kid who knew who my representatives were. I always believed in the power of the vote. I can't say for sure when I first heard about Roe, but I know I've known about it for a long, long time. It's the sort of thing my family would have talked about."

Kristin Munsch, a 24-year-old NARAL board member, grew up in a more conservative family in Cleveland. "I'm not sure how I learned about Roe--I don't remember hearing my parents talk about it," says Munsch. "Interestingly enough, I wouldn't be surprised if I heard about it in ninth-grade biology. I went to an all-girls Catholic school and our biology teacher was an ex-nun who loved to talk. She must have mentioned Roe, even if she didn't name it. That may have been the first time I knew there was a decision on abortion rights. Thinking back, my impression is that she was pro-choice. But I can't say for sure."

Mather's activism was a long time coming; as a tennis-playing teenager growing up in a Republican household in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she was more interested in sports than politics. "I don't have many political memories from my childhood, though curiously enough I do remember having a long argument with my eighth-grade Sunday school teacher about abortion," she says. "I just couldn't understand--even then--why it was the government's right to tell a woman what to do with her body. I told my mother about the argument and she said, 'Catholics don't believe in abortion.' Well, that certainly explained why my Sunday school teacher was so adamant--it was, after all, a Catholic school. But it doesn't explain why I felt the way I did. I just had a fundamental opposition to that sort of government intervention, even at an early age."

Her convictions were affirmed by her experiences as a volunteer on the Planned Parenthood hot line when she moved to Chicago after graduating from the University of Michigan.

"Abortion is an issue a lot of people want to stay away from until they face it," says Mather. "When I was on the hot line I remember taking calls from women who said, 'I'm against abortion but I'm pregnant, and I need somewhere to go because I just can't have a baby.' Or I'd get a call from someone who said, 'I believe the fetus is a human being, I will vote pro-life, but I'm pregnant and I need an abortion.'

"To me those were the hardest calls to take. On the one hand this is the hot line and I'm basically there to give information. But on the other hand it's only natural that I want to say, 'Hey, wake up! You're lucky you have this office here to make sure you have access to this fundamental right. But you tell me you want to turn right around and vote in a way that will deny that right to another woman.'"

According to Mather, those exchanges exposed the confusion and hypocrisy in the abortion debate. "I think people tend to have the attitude that everything's OK if it happens in their house," says Mather. "In other words, 'I don't like other women having them but my situation's different 'cause I really need one.' I guess people just don't see the inherent contradiction there, or maybe they don't want to see it. It goes back to what George Bush and Dan Quayle said when asked if their daughters should have an abortion, and they said, 'It's her decision.' Of course, Marilyn Quayle came back and said she'd make her daughter keep the baby--I guess she was mad at Dan for speaking his mind. But again, it shows people keeping for themselves the access to choice that they want to restrict for others. So you have choice for everyone but the poor people who can't afford to pay for an abortion or who live in a rural area where there are no clinics--they're the ones who don't get the choice."

Mather says the abortion debate has been distorted in ways most people don't realize. "The anti-choice side has done such a good job of polarizing and stereotyping the issue of reproductive freedom that it's become so superficial," says Mather. "I ran into someone who told me I had been seen 'protesting' outside an el stop. In fact, I was handing out campaign materials regarding a pro-choice candidate. I thought it was interesting that someone would call that protesting. I said, 'If I was handing out pamphlets on a candidate's position on welfare reform, would that be leafleting?'"

In general, Mather and her allies feel their 20-something generation is much more apathetic than its predecessors. Munsch theorizes that it's because they have had a relatively good time of it in recent years, with the economy booming. Viera blames the press for disillusioning people by focusing so much attention "on the negative, like waste and fraud and abuse and politicians taking kickbacks instead of focusing on the politicians who are fighting for your rights."

Mather says her generation may simply be rebelling against their parents. "Our generation is pulling back from defining itself," she says. "We like the fact that people cannot put a label on us. It's part of our independence and autonomy and being able to step back and make our own decisions.

"There were no big events that pulled us together, no wars, no crises in government. The stock market crashed one day when I was in college and Bush sent troops to the Persian Gulf. These were powerful things, but they were over relatively quickly. People from the older generation can ask each other, 'Where were you when Kennedy died?' For us it's where were you when the space shuttle blew up, or when the O.J. decision came in, or when Princess Di died? Our points of reference are relatively trivial events."

Still, she thinks her peers may be forced into activism if abortions continue to become more difficult to obtain.

In 1992, for instance, the Supreme Court voted seven to two to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring doctors to "provide patients with antiabortion information, including pictures of fetuses at various stages of development," according to a recent NARAL judicial report.

Over the years, the Illinois General Assembly has passed a series of restrictions, including bills that would all but outlaw abortions for teenagers by requiring them to get parental consent. The 1998 gubernatorial campaign might pit two antiabortion candidates: Republican George Ryan and Democrat Glenn Poshard, whose positions are as extreme as those of all but the most radical Republicans.

"Our generation has never felt the imperative to act in choice, at least not as much as the generation before us," says Mather. "That attitude might be changing. The future's uncertain. A lot of things we grew up assuming can no longer be taken for granted."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): undredited photo of Christine Viera and Chris Mather.

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