The Last Abortion Clinic
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the mysterious disappearance of young pro-choice women by Susan Dominus
Once strong supporters of unrestricted abortion, women under 30 are suddenly ambivalent. What's behind our change of heart on this crucial women's issue?

Kristen Camp, 23, grew up following in the footsteps of her older sister, Amy, attending the same high school and youth group in Corpus Christi, Texas, learning to whip up the same family recipes, inheriting Amy's old flannel shirts. Still close, the two recently lived together, each of them happy to find a roommate who shared her taste in food, fashion, even social issues. Unsurprisingly -- since they were raised by socially progressive parents -- the sisters think alike on political topics: for gun control, against the death penalty, for gay rights. That's why Amy was floored when she realized that they were miles apart on one major issue: abortion. Amy is pro-choice, Kristen is pro-life. "I only found out when I was talking about a friend of mine whom I'd recently learned wasn't pro-choice," Amy recalls. At that moment Kristen confessed that she wasn't either. "I was pretty shaken up -- her beliefs were so far from mine," says Amy. They discussed it but couldn't find common ground. "We just know we'll never change the other one's mind," she says.

What could account for such diametrically opposed views in such similar women? The simple but startling answer may be their age difference; at 31, Amy is eight years older than her sister. When she came of age in the early nineties, there was robust support for abortion rights among young women. "When I went to college, there was an atmosphere that it was a given that you were pro-choice," Amy recalls. But by the time Kristen was old enough to form her opinions on the issue, the tide had turned dramatically. "In Corpus, where we grew up, there now are a lot more kids who would say that they were pro-life, and be able to talk about why, than there were when Amy was younger," says Kristen. Survey after survey backs her up and proves it's a nationwide trend. In 1993 just about half of women between the ages of 18 and 29 said abortion should be available to anyone who wants it, according to a CBS/ New York Times poll; 10 years later, in 2003, the number of young women who felt that way dropped to 35 percent. The youngest group, it turned out, was more conservative about abortion rights than women in every other age category -- except women old enough to be their grandmothers, 65 and up! This slow but steady seismic shift has gone mostly under the radar, but the reverberations may end up deciding the future of abortion in this country.

"I've seen the numbers and I find them unbelievably shocking," says Alexander Sanger, chairman of the International Planned Parenthood Council (and grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger). "Isn't it obvious that young women have to be at the forefront of fighting for their reproductive rights because they're the ones who need them?" On his tours of college campuses, he has noticed that numerous campuses no longer have a pro-choice group. But he has yet to visit one that doesn't have a strong, vocal faction of pro-life women turning out to hear him speak. "It's not just the numbers that are down among pro-choice women," he says. "It's the enthusiasm." Conservative commentator and public opinion expert Kellyanne Conway has seen the same kind of drop in her own polling. "The intensity with which young women once marched and protested and gave money and time and engaged in spirited cocktail party debate-it's just not there anymore," she says. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg agrees, observing that while young people tend to have liberal views on homosexuality and race relations, "choice is the only social issue in which you haven't seen them move to the left. The question," says Greenberg, "is why aren't more young women pro-choice?"

Some longtime feminists insist that support among young women is still high, but many others acknowledge the downturn and think they've figured it out: Young women don't know how good they have it. Today's twentysomethings may have heard about the details of life before Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that granted women a constitutional right to abortion, but they've never lived through the sordid conditions of back-alley abortions, the deaths from botched procedures, the desperation of a woman trapped by her own changing body. It's ancient history to them, and about as compelling. While young women may understand, theoretically, that an altered lineup of Supreme Court justices could easily overturn Roe, it's hard for them to imagine that a right they've had all their lives could vanish -- poof! -- overnight, just because a majority of justices declare it so. "Young women have grown up with legal abortion, so they don't believe there's a real threat to it," says Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. "They don't really get involved in the politics of it, and they're able to say, 'Oh, I'm against abortion,' knowing that it's there for them if they really need it."

But is it that young women are taking legal abortion for granted? Or are they just changing their minds about it? Here, some young women around the country stake out their positions, explain how they got there and rethink a right their mothers marched for, voted on and fought so hard to win.

 

Birth control confidence

On a frigid day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, eight young women, all students at the University of Michigan, slowly thaw out on the top floor of a pizza restaurant. They are a typical bunch of college go-getters, busy pursuing degrees in business and social policy, and brimming with ambition. Many of them belong to the same sorority, a particularly desirable one on campus ("We're one of the cute blond sororities," one admits, a little embarrassed). Each woman has taken a break from her work to meet with me and discuss the subject of abortion, curious to hear where various friends stand. (All asked that they be identified by first name only, to promote frank discussion.) A quick poll reveals that a little more than half of the women consider themselves pro-life, and in this sense they reflect pretty closely the change in women's attitudes about abortion on campuses around the country. Back in 1992 as many as 68 percent of young women entering college said they strongly or somewhat believed abortion should be legal. By 2004 only 53 percent felt the same way, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study.

What's helped mold the opinions of the Michigan gang? Well, two of them feel no personal need for abortion since they plan not to have sex until marriage. Everyone at the table looks up from their pizza or salad when Janine, 20, a pretty aspiring actress with fine features, shyly mentions that she'd had sex (her first time ever, they knew) over Christmas break. No, she explains, she wasn't on the Pill. So they'd used a condom.

"But what if the condom broke?" a friend asks, a little stunned. She knows Janine is pro-life. The implied question: If the condom broke and Janine found herself pregnant, would she really risk her career dreams and have the baby? Janine looks back as if the friend asked a no-brainer: "I'd have used the morning after pill," she says. "In fact, the condom didn't break, and I still thought about using it. I'm not ready to have a kid."

Most of these women see contraception as a rock-solid insurance policy against unwanted pregnancy, one that should have practically eliminated the need for abortion by now. Birth control of all kinds has never been more available, now that health care plans cover the contraception of roughly 50 percent of the population (as of press time, 21 states mandate that health care plans cover the costs). "Young women think of contraception like the air and the water," says Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood and the author of The War on Choice. "It's just something that's there when you need it."

And, as Janine notes, there's backup contraception in case your chosen method fails. "The morning-after pill is very, very accessible on campus," says Rachel, 20, an aspiring journalist in the Michigan group. Everywhere I went to talk to young women, most knew someone who'd taken the morning after pill (commercially most often known as Plan B), getting access through Planned Parenthood or a university health center with a bare minimum of hassle. Abby, 20, a business major in an orange cable-knit sweater, is like Janine: She says she's pro-life, and she doesn't oppose the morning-after pill. To her, Plan B should render abortions all but obsolete. "Why would you ever have to wake up one morning three months pregnant and decide then that you couldn't have that baby?" she asks. "'Why would it ever take that long?"

When it comes to birth control, the young women at the University of Michigan have little patience for excuses and a strong belief in personal responsibility. "The whole seventies idea of, 'Oh, I don't know what to do with myself, I just got pregnant, I don't know how,' that whole victim thing doesn't resonate with most young women today," says Naomi Wolf, the author of The Beauty Myth and, more recently, The Treehouse. "We've broken down shame around sex and contraception -- so these young women are not responsive to the idea that a girl just doesn't know what she's doing." Without a claim of ignorance to fall back on, abortion, to them, may seem less crucial and less justifiable than ever.

Feldt feels that attitude sets an impossible standard. ''I've noticed that young women seem to be more judgmental about abortion these days," she says. "Because birth control is available, there's an element of almost punitive judgment about their peers who get pregnant and decide to have an abortion. I'm delighted that young women have more choices and more ways to avoid unintended pregnancies -- but so far as I know, there's no perfect contraceptive yet. And I don't believe there's been a perfect woman yet, either." Yes, contraceptives work -- but sometimes they fail. And yes, women today have more sexual know-how and a stronger sense of responsibility for their behavior -- but sometimes all that falls by the wayside. As Feldt succinctly sums up, "Stuff happens."

 

A pro-life movement makeover

When did young women's support for abortion first start plummeting in the polls? Around 1992, which seems counterintuitive, since that year marked a major victory for pro-choice activists: In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court upheld Roe, though it allowed states to make restrictions on abortion that didn't place "undue burdens" on women who wanted one.

"Actually, it makes perfect sense that the Casey ruling coincided with a pro-choice downturn," says William Saletan, author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. In the years leading up to Casey, activists were energized and motivated by the fear that this case would either overturn or weaken Roe. When that didn't happen, he says, "in 1992, you got this huge sigh of relief." Almost immediately, ''funding for pro-choice organizations dropped." And right after that, support for abortion started dropping in many polls. Never more secure in their legal abortion rights, Saletan believes, young women could safely indulge in what he calls "the ick factor," a purely emotional aversion to terminating a pregnancy.

Around the same time, the pro-life movement gave itself a face-lift and started to adopt "pro-woman language," Saletan says. Whereas its loudest voices had previously been those of sign-waving, even violent, clinic protesters, the pro-life community now repositioned itself as the movement with women's best interests at heart, characterizing abortion as violence against women and publicizing a link, since disproved, between abortion and breast cancer. ("Women Who Choose Abortion Suffer More & Deadlier Breast Cancer" said metro ads in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore that were funded by the conservative group Christ's Bride Ministries in 1996.) The strategy is still in use; actress Patricia Heaton recently helped promote an anti-abortion campaign that said, "Women deserve better."

In 1993, the National Right to Life Committee started fighting a visually striking, emotionally unsettling, campaign to publicize the details of what pro-lifers termed "partial-birth abortion," a relatively uncommon procedure to terminate later-term pregnancies, in which the fetus' body is removed from the womb; then its skull is punctured and collapsed. The committee placed graphic ads in hundreds of newspapers and distributed thousands of pamphlets with shockingly clear images of each step of the process. Viewers were sickened. "One of the issues that really helped move women more toward the pro-life movement was partial-birth abortion and an understanding of what the procedure really was," says Jane Abraham, president for the past eight years of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life nonprofit political education committee. "It was quite horrifying for people on both sides of the issue." Jennifer Baumgardner, 34, the author of Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, is staunchly pro-choice but acknowledges the pro-life victory on this issue. "The right was very dexterous in using partial birth abortion, and I don't think our side had good answers. The media shifted its attention from women's lives to the details of this grisly procedure."

Since the mid-nineties 31 states have passed laws banning so-called partial birth abortions, and in 2003 President Bush signed a federal ban into law (three federal judges have since struck it down, ruling that, among other things, the ban is unconstitutional). Women currently in their twenties were largely in their teens at the start of this campaign, which means they grew up with a host of painful, vivid images that effectively tainted their impression of abortion as a medical procedure. ''They showed us a plastic model of a uterus and used it to describe a partial birth abortion at my Catholic middle school," Janine told me back in Ann Arbor. "It was so disgusting, it definitely turned me off of all abortions."

 

The sonogram effect

In Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of eight women in their twenties have gathered for brunch on a Sunday morning, one or two generously skipping church to honor a girlfriend's request that they meet up to talk about abortion. They're mostly old childhood friends who get together to drink appletinis and compare notes on everything from their entrepreneurial ideas -- a few of them design and sell earrings together -- to their favorite Juicy Tubes lip gloss colors. The well-worn fondness between them seems to make it safe to discuss their disagreement on controversial subjects. When one young woman -- we'll call her Emma -- talks about her pro-choice status, she mentions that she's taken the morning-after pill, and looks sharply at her friend Mary Kathryn the way one looks at a sister who might take the opportunity to lecture. Mary Kathryn may have reservations about emergency contraception, but the moment passes peacefully, and in general, it's refreshing to see these women with different, passionate views on abortion discussing it amicably, even affectionately.

Dressed in low-rider jeans and a sleek black V-neck, Tiffany, 25, characterizes herself as "pro-life and pro-woman," before going on to say she has one desire for people on both sides of the issue: "I just wish both sides could talk to each other with a lot more compassion." Tiffany volunteers at what she calls a pregnancy support clinic in Raleigh, the kind of service that encourages young women considering abortion to continue their pregnancy instead. Many such agencies have been criticized for manipulating vulnerable clients; Tiffany says that her organization, at least, is careful not to mislead women about its agenda or pressure them one way or the other. "Sometimes they just need someone to tell them they can handle having that child, to believe in them," she says. What else sways a pregnant woman? Taking a high-tech look at her growing fetus. Tiffany says she frequently refers her clients to another clinic nearby that's equipped with ultrasound machines. "I'll just remind them that all of our services are free -- 'Are you sure you don't want a free ultrasound?' And often they'll say, 'Well sure, I'll have one, if it's free.' Once they see the baby's heart beating and realize this is really a living creature, it changes their mind." Practitioners at these clinics have estimated that at least 50 percent of women who see that image decide against abortion, and several states are considering legislation that would require abortion providers to offer patients an ultrasound or show images from someone else's.

Pregnant women aren't the only ones whose thinking may have been reprogrammed by new technology. "Everyone has seen a sonogram by now," says pollster Conway. "You've seen them taped to a colleague's computer for three months, or your mom's sent you one in the mail and said, 'Look, this is going to be your nephew.' These scientific images are shifting the debate." The issue of viability may look very different to a young woman bombarded with fetal imagery and news about stunning advances in neonatal medicine (successful surgery on a baby still in utero, the survival of an 11-ounce preemie); it may be harder for her to see abortion as a straightforward medical procedure than it would have been 20 years ago.

Activist and author Wolf started out as ''pro-choice as any card-carrying feminist," but, she says, "the issue got more complicated when I got pregnant." Partly because her own pregnancy changed her thinking, Wolf now sees value in the way some European countries do it: free, legal abortion in the first trimester but close regulation thereafter (with exceptions for cases in which the health or life of the mother is in jeopardy). Rigidly insisting on the right to elective abortions late in the second trimester, she argues, "is a loser of a position, and it's not what we should be fighting this battle on...and I'm not even sure it's right." Wolf's views seem to mirror the population's: In 2003 a Gallup poll found that 66 percent of people thought abortion should be "generally legal" in the first trimester, but only 25 percent thought it should be allowed to anyone who wants it in the second trimester. "Would pro-life women maybe be more willing to support a safe reproductive agenda" -- including legal first trimester abortion -- "if the pro-choice side wasn't out there screaming about the right to terminate what feels to many women like a living being at five or six months?" asks Wolf.

"Naomi should stop yapping about giving something up and start concentrating on making sure women continue to have access in the first trimester," responds a frustrated Feldt. "The women who have later-term abortions are having them because there are health reasons or because they didn't have access earlier on, or they're young and naïve -- there are reasons that would break your heart." As for the savviness of compromising with pro-lifers, she feels too much compromise has already happened -- indeed, since Casey, hundreds of restrictions on abortion have passed, including parental notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and limits on funding. Ceding any more ground could prove devastating, Feldt believes. Why? Because, she maintains, "The political forces opposed to abortion are the same factions who want to eliminate sex education and make it harder to get access to the morning-after pill and other contraception," she says. "Winston Churchill once said that an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it'll eat him last. This is about the consequences of letting the political power go to people who will take away every other reproductive right. Choice is not just about abortion -- it's just the tip of the big ideological iceberg that has to do with a woman's place in the world."

 

A new reverence for motherhood

Until a few years ago, Mary Kathryn, one of the women at the Raleigh brunch, would have characterized herself as pro-choice -- "I didn't want those men in suits telling me what to do with my body" -- but she had a change of heart after hearing about a male friend whose girlfriend had an abortion without telling him. "It left him devastated," she says, "and I started to shift my thinking." That shift, she says, was no doubt influenced by her long-standing devotion to her church and faith.

Mary Kathryn also went to high school with a young woman who carried her baby to term and then placed it with an adoptive family. Witnessing that act moved her, she says; "I had tremendous respect for that girl." She's not alone; numerous young women I interviewed spoke admiringly of someone they knew who'd gotten pregnant and had either opted for adoption or had raised the baby with parental help, sometimes continuing on to college and a career. Mothers who "gave up their children" were once considered callous; now, with so many infertile parents craving a family, placing a child for adoption is perceived as an act of singular generosity. "Society definitely embraces women who place their children for adoption with more warmth than they have in the past," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the nonprofit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and the author of Adoption Nation. Janine from Ann Arbor came at the issue from an unexpected angle: "I have so many gay friends who'd like to adopt," she said, explaining one reason why she opposes abortion. ''There aren't enough babies for them as it is."

And having a baby and keeping it is no longer out of the question. "There's much less stigma compared to 30 years ago, when getting pregnant meant you had no choice but to drop out of high school," says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). In fact, the number of schools that offer specific programs for pregnant students, providing options and education rather than kicking girls out as soon as they start to show, has noticeably increased over the past couple of decades, according to Pat Paluzzi, director of the nonprofit Healthy Teen Network.

Motherhood, with or without marriage, has never been portrayed as more flatteringly youthful, more carefree, more accessorizable." I think the glamorizing of the very young or single mother -- the Angelina Jolies, the Reese Witherspoons, Elizabeth Hurleys, these women who get their kids and their figures back -- is part of the thinking that, these days, motherhood is what women want, not freedom from motherhood," says Virginia Heffernan, television critic for The New York Times. Once a time when women borrowed their friends' old maternity jeans and sacked out at home, pregnancy is now a whole new fashion opportunity, with a host of high-style clothing chains springing up around the country to cater to the well-dressed woman who's popped. Maybe because the paparazzi make it impossible to hide out for the duration, celebrities have found a way to make pregnancy and children seem like enviable status prizes.

We're in "a nutty maternity-obsessed moment," agrees Nation columnist Pollitt, but young women, she says, might overestimate just how far the average unmarried young mom can get. "We look at the one or two who pull it off" -- the rare single mother who's pre-med; the celebrity who has the kid, the career and the perfectly toned abs -- "but the reality is that for most of the population, having a kid before you're financially and emotionally ready sets you up for years of hardship and difficulty. Take away a woman's right to abortion," says Pollitt, "and you'll see so many women's lives really diminished."

Serrin M. Foster, president of the advocacy group Feminists for Life, sees it another way. "I think what young women are asking now is: Is abortion the best solution we can come up with for women?" she says. "The [pro-choice movement] doesn't have the electrical appeal it had in the seventies -- in part, because back then, the right to have an abortion was indirectly tied to a woman's right to pursue a career. It was tied to women having all kinds of rights. Now we have those rights! So young women are questioning abortion and looking for other solutions to the challenges that pregnant women and young parents experience."

 

Who still needs choice?

There's just one little problem with the new pro-life posture of many young women: They're still getting pregnant...and still having abortions. The number of women age 20 to 24 who have abortions each year did, in fact, decline steadily in the nineties in the U.S., but only from 5.2 percent to 4.7 percent -- a small drop, some of which may be due to increasing restrictions.

"Just because you don't support abortion doesn't mean you're not willing to have one when confronted with an unexpected pregnancy," says Rachel Jones, a research assistant at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion and other reproductive issues. "Even a young woman who doesn't support the issue may still feel it's the best decision she can make, even if it's not one she wishes to make. And she may feel that she's the exception -- that most people who have abortions are immoral, but her circumstances are unique." One young woman in Michigan told me she'd vote for a pro-life candidate over a pro-choice candidate -- but in the same conversation also said she couldn't really say exactly what she'd do if she herself got accidentally pregnant.

Laurie, a friend of Emma's from Raleigh, found herself in that situation two years ago at 23, and she chose to have an abortion. In college she was an assistant manager at a restaurant and a strong student in a two-year relationship with a guy she loved. Although she'd started using contraception at 16, she'd gone off the Pill, and usually she and her boyfriend used condoms. But just once, Laurie says, thinking the timing was safe, they slipped up. He pulled out, but nevertheless she suspected within a week that she was pregnant. She had an abortion as soon as she could. "It was a very painful decision, but the relationship eventually ended badly, and I'm so glad now I don't have a child with him. I wish with all my heart I could take back the mistake I made that night with him, but I can't, and in the long run [abortion] was the right choice for me, and it was definitely the right choice for that unborn child, who would have been growing up in a broken home, with parents who don't talk...those are not the values I'd want my child to be growing up with from the moment it entered the world." She decided not to join the brunch because "I would have gotten so angry. I'm the kind of person who believes it's your ride, you have to live life the way that's best for you. I'd have a really big problem with people telling me I'm going to go to hell for what I did."

These days, one rarely hears women like Laurie speak openly about having an abortion. It wasn't always that way: In 1991 celebrities like Anne Archer, Jill Clayburgh and Whoopi Goldberg chose, at the height of their careers, to contribute their abortion stories to an essay collection called The Choices We Made. Celebrities today regularly reveal the details of their drug addictions, sexual obsessions, marital infidelities -- but no celebrity in recent memory has admitted to ending a pregnancy. That's why it's so startling to watch regular women who've done so over the past 70 years talk about their experience in a documentary Jennifer Baumgardner recently co-created called Speak Out: I Had An Abortion.

A'yen Tran, 24, an Ivy League-educated Web director wearing a scarf around her neck and a vintage cardigan, sits in the audience at a recent screening of the film. Articulate and poised in a quiet way, she seems like someone the young women I interviewed in Raleigh and Houston and Ann Arbor and Wellesley would probably like right away; with her calm confidence, she might even be someone they'd turn to for advice. They'd probably be surprised to learn that A'yen has had not one but two abortions. She is one of the women featured in the movie. I ask A'yen the question I know my former inteviewees would ask if they could: "Why weren't you religiously using contraception?" She gives reasons that ring true. "It was an abusive relationship," she says. "Sometimes he forced me. And I was young and didn't have a strong sense of what I could and couldn't do." As for the morning-after pill, she's not sure she really knew about it at the time. In other words, she was young; educated though she was, she was ill-informed; confident though she now seems, she made mistakes. Who hasn't?

A'yen says if she'd had the child, she can't imagine that single motherhood would have proved glamorous for her. "I was raised by a single mom, so I know how hard that is," she says. She wouldn't have been able to afford college; she wouldn't have been able to live on her own, to keep dreaming of a career in political activism. A'yen, for one, isn't ambivalent about the choice that she made or the freedom the right to an abortion gave her to lead a hopeful life.

Pro-choice activists fear that if young women aren't willing to put their energy and personal passion behind legal abortion, politicians who once defended it will back down, clearing the way for the approval of pro-life Supreme Court justices. (That shift among politicians is already taking place and is obvious when you compare Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns, in which he loudly and proudly proclaimed his pro-choice position, to the one John Kerry ran eight years later, maintaining almost total radio-silence on the subject except when pressed during debates.) So what will happen to all those young women who may want an abortion in the future, should Roe ever be overturned? "The threat of unsafe, illegal abortions will be much, much more dangerous for very young women and poor women," says NOW's Kim Gandy. "Young women are the ones who don't have the connections or the wherewithal or the money necessary to get themselves to the few doctors who will still be offering safe but very expensive underground abortions. They will have to go to whomever they can afford. They are the ones whose lives will be ended by dangerous infections or from counterfeit RU-486 they've bought from some charlatan on the Web, or whose lives will be changed in ways we can't imagine when they're forced to bear children they don't want and can't care for."

In fact, some pro-choice advocates argue that young women's conflicted feelings about abortion may actually be a sign of how secure this right has made them feel. After watching Baumgardner's film, feminist activist Alix Kates Shulman points out the difference in the tone of the women who had their abortion pre- and post-Roe. ''When it was illegal, all you heard about was how relieved they were, how desperate they were to have an abortion," says Shulman. "Only after it was legal could those women talk about their ambivalence and sorrow. That ambivalence is a luxury of legality."

And if the right to legal abortion was lost, or willingly surrendered, how would women feel then? Feldt imagines a huge swing back to pro-choice views. "If Roe is overturned, I think women will take to the streets," she says. She envisions women organizing like never before, throwing themselves into the cause and eventually managing to undo the damage. The death of Roe, she says, could even be the best thing that ever happened to its principles: "I believe women will be so angry that they'll be totally energized, and maybe 30 years later, they'd finally have built up the power to get an amendment passed securing abortion as a permanent right, and then that would be the end of the issue."

But she follows that vision with a simple, impassioned question she wants young women to consider: "Why wait?"

 

Susan Dominus is a Glamour contributing editor and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. This article was originally published in Glamour magazine, August 2005. Reprinted by author's permission.

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