Young People are Telling Us How to Save Abortion Access — We Need to Listen
By Lara Bergthold, Zach Carter, and Kaitlin Funaro
Last week’s Roe v. Wade bombshell wasn’t a surprise to those who have been paying attention to efforts to strip people of their rights to reproductive justice for decades. Conservative states are winning this battle because — as much as we don’t want to hear it — many in the mainstream reproductive rights movement haven’t adapted their tactics or message to meet the moment.
The majority of Americans still think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases but that support hasn’t translated into widespread action. It’s easy for abortion to be a theoretical right — you don’t use it until you need it. If we are going to increase support for the right to an abortion, and translate that support into action, we need a new message and a new coalition centering those whose voices are most absent from the conversation. That includes young women, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color, nonbinary people, and trans men who already face barriers to accessing culturally conscious, high-quality healthcare without stigma.
We also can’t ignore the millions of people who don’t have a fully formed opinion about abortion rights. That so-called ‘moveable middle’ requires a new way of talking about abortion rights that meets people where they are and connects with their own personal experience. We partnered with the Packard Foundation in 2020 to investigate whether we could shift the reproductive health narrative to a more values-based approach in order to reach young women in the middle.
We focused on how to communicate about abortion access in Louisiana — a state where, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 94% of counties had no abortion clinics. Informed by grassroots organizers and reproductive justice advocates both nationally and across the Gulf Coast, our work shed light on the following insights that can help advocates communicate to Gen Z and Young Millennial audiences, particularly those who don’t support abortion rights but share a value set with their generation that provides an opening for discussion.
Emphasize Abortion Access as a Personal Freedom
In our research with young adults in Louisiana, pro-abortion access messages that framed abortion as a personal freedom resonated for audiences across the traditional political spectrum. Because young adults have little trust in institutions and systems, they have both an allergy to being told what to do and an incentive to remake and reimagine systems in a way that benefits individuals. This allergy is reflected in the chart below, where protecting abortion access ranks at the bottom of the social issues tested in our survey, protecting individual freedoms ranks at the very top. We also know from this research that young people are more connected to social issues like racial and ethnic equality, LGBTQ+ rights, policing reform, and protecting the environment that have similar underlying values of equity and justice.
By framing abortion as a personal decision — and explicitly stating that starting a family or choosing abortion are equally valid decisions — young adults see abortion as an individual decision to make. For example, personal freedoms resonate with more conservative-minded young adults, because it represents freedom from anyone’s influence, including the government’s — a traditionally conservative idea. The adaptability of personal freedom messaging to audiences across the political spectrum makes it a helpful touchpoint when communicating to young audiences because it creates an opening to talk about the need to protect personal freedoms in a way that connects with an audience who doesn’t prioritize abortion access and might hold faith-based concerns.
Frame Abortion Access as an Issue of Bodily Autonomy
As a generation coming of age during the #MeToo movement and Brett Kavanaugh judicial hearings, and living through the pandemic’s impacts on mental health — young audiences feel that only they know what’s best for their health and their bodies. While abortion is often covered as a political issue, sexual violence is often discussed in a less politicized way. Reframing abortion access in the context of bodily autonomy and consent can move young adults away from thinking about abortion in a politicized sense and toward talking about abortion in the context of personal boundaries.
The idea of having power over your own body and a right to consent emphasizes a shared understanding among young adults across the ideological spectrum that it’s not okay for someone to tell you what your personal options are when it comes to decisions regarding your health and your body.
The personal freedoms messaging frame provides space for individuals who would not seek an abortion themselves to advocate for their peers to continue to have access. The personal freedoms frame is not limited to the individual — it’s also affording Gen Zers who lean conservative to understand that while they may not want an abortion for themselves, their peers may want abortions, and should be able to access the reproductive health treatment that they want. Individuals can personally be anti-abortion but can engage with this messaging frame because they understand abortion’s importance to those who seek it.
This is just one audience in the ‘moveable middle’ that we need to engage in the fight for abortion access. With Roe as the latest domino to fall, we can’t afford to keep having the same conversation centered around a theoretical right and a Supreme Court ruling. We need to really talk to people about what personal choice and having control over one’s body means to them. Then we need to listen.
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