Passing the baton
Next generation brings new energy to ongoing abortion debate
McKenna Beeter and Sommer Bradley soaked up the atmosphere at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., last January. The experience of associating with more than 20,000 people who shared their pro-life interests was confidence building, the Bishop Ryan High School seniors said.
“They were passionate about what they were marching for. It definitely changed my perspective about how many people are aware of it and have the same beliefs as we do,” Bradley said. “Now our mission is just raising awareness.”
A separate Women’s March also took place in January in Washington and other communities around the country. A family event kept Kayla Schmidt, 27, a Minot native now of Bismarck, from participating, but she held her own personal march with her family as a show of support for women and their right to make choices, including reproductive choices.
“You have to find what’s the right choice for you. It’s all about gaining knowledge, gaining self respect, being in a healthy place,” she said.
Young people are stepping up and speaking up when it comes to abortion and picking up a torch lit in America in the 1970s by, more often than not, their grandparents’ generation. This past year’s election of Donald Trump as president, appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice and talk of eliminating federal dollars for women’s services at Planned Parenthood clinics have prodded activism on both sides.
Planned Parenthood sees young people knocking on its door and asking what they can do to help, said state director Amy Jacobson, Fargo.
“We have seen a real surgence of folks, young people, reaching out – like the Women’s March,” she said. “For us in North Dakota, it’s traditionally college age that becomes more active in the movement. That’s when they want to learn more about their rights and gain a desire to stand up for them.”
Through an internship program, Planned Parenthood has engaged college students in reaching out to peers on and off campus via meet-ups, rallies or film screenings.
“We really leave the design of it to the students,” Jacobson said. “One of the things we want to do at Planned Parenthood is really empower people to be their own advocate. With young people it’s about mentorship and really supporting them in their ideas so if they have something they want to do around reproductive rights in their community, we really want to shore that up.”
Schmidt, a 2013 graduate of Minot State University, connected with the North Dakota Women’s Network while in college. She coordinated the Women’s Network’s weekly Feminist First Friday conversations on campus.
“I was still pretty young and not sure how outspoken I wanted to be, but I knew I felt very strong about the issues,” she said.
She continues to volunteer her time to the Women’s Network and its Feminist First Friday events. For Schmidt, the real topic is women’s rights, of which reproductive choice is just part of the discussion. She credits her interest in women’s rights to a collective of experiences and the influences of other women on her life. Her generation also grew up very much in charge of their bodies with tattoos, piercing and hair coloring. So the idea of choice when discussing reproduction was not a big deal, Schmidt said.
“For many, it’s about trusting a woman with her own choice and what she wants to do. I believe women are smart,” she said. “It’s allowing us the voice to say we are competent to make these decisions.”
Beeter and Bradley said pro-life values underlie what they are taught in religion classes at school, but that isn’t necessarily the foundation of their beliefs. Aside from their faith-based beliefs, they said they feel a sense inside themselves that the unborn have a right to life.
“It’s about your inner feeling – your right from wrong,” Bradley said.
Beeter said her adoption and opportunity to meet her birth father fed her interest. Knowing abortion was an option her birth parents could have selected motivates her to promote a pro-life message. Beeter walked with March for Life the past two years, assisted with the N.D. Right to Life entry in the State Fair Parade and worked at the Right to Life booth at the fair this year.
Beeter and Bradley credit their activism to an early awareness of the abortion issue. That’s driven them to do their own research, which has helped shape their views. They are familiar with women’s abortion stories and are concerned about the psychological consequences of abortion. They also are concerned that so many young people don’t have good information and view abortion as an easy way out of an unwanted pregnancy.
Medora Nagle, executive director of North Dakota Right to Life, said the chapter doesn’t specifically target information to young people.
“What we focus on is changing the hearts and minds of everyone,” she said. “The biggest way for us to do that is to provide them with information.”
However, she added young people are the future of the organization. Membership numbers have held steady in Chapters of Collegians for Life and Teens for Life around the state over the past five years, she said.
Demographics of active pro-life supporters tend to show greater numbers at the older and younger extremes, which may be due to time constraints weighing heavier on the folks in the middle, she said.
“It’s about sacrifice – who is willing to do this, who is willing to take time out of their busy lives,” said Colleen Samson, Park River, with 40 Days for Life. The organization puts a particular focus on a 40-day period – this year from Sept. 27 to Nov. 5 – but also has community outreach as one of its tenets.
Legislation, having a pregnancy help center in a community and pro-life events serve to increase involvement by giving people a place to focus their efforts, Samson said.
Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network, Bismarck, said the reproductive choice groups galvanized in 2013 when the state Legislature considered a large number of anti-abortion bills.
“We really coalesced together, and we have maintained those connections,” Stromme said. The organization doesn’t track its demographics, although it clearly has members from teenagers to retirees, Stromme said. The Women’s Network has regional groups that meet in the state’s eight largest cities.
A Women’s Network member, Ellie Shockley, 33, Mandan, said it was “a lot of really wonderful conversations” with feminist women that moved her from passive agreement to active support on women’s issues, including reproductive rights.
“I was sort of raised with the view that there may be reasons to think that abortion is unfortunate or not ideal or wise to avoid for yourself, but you cannot understand what another women is going through, and it really isn’t your business,” she said. “Women know what’s best for them. They are the ones dealing with the circumstances.”
Vallie Needham, 22, Bismarck, considers her generation more likely to work outside traditional political spheres. She became involved with the grassroots Bismarck Backyard Club, which formed around the health-care issue and now serves as her way to promote women’s rights.
Organizations seeking to get millennials involved in pro-life or pro-choice movements are seeking them out on social media, which Needham says is a good avenue for sharing information and bringing people together but less effective in implementing change.
“I decided if I wanted to change my community and, in my opinion, for the good, I can’t just sit on Facebook,” she said. “It became so easy for me to disengage from Facebook arguments that never went anywhere after Trump was elected.”
That’s when she committed to attending two political events a month, which grew to one or two a week. She travels about once a month to Fargo, where she serves as an escort for women visiting the Red River Women’s Clinic, North Dakota’s only facility that offers abortions. Needham said she held strong pro-life views growing up in a conservative Christian home, but her position changed after encountering stories of women who made the abortion choice due to economic or emotional circumstances.
“There are so many different issues all tied up in the abortion issue. I don’t think we allow the abortion issue as much gray nuance as it deserves. Abortion is incredibly complex,” Needham said. “Abortion is necessary in the world we live in now, but we can take steps to make that necessity go away.”
Young activists say it is real-life and factual information that will engage the next generation.
Needham said if there is one thing organizations need to understand, it is that young people don’t need the light version of serious issues.
“Treat us as if we care and as if we can think critically enough to understand what you are saying,” she said.
A cushion of support also is necessary. Just as Beeter said the overwhelming numbers at March for Life increased her confidence, Shockley said being part of a group passionate about shared interests is necessary to weather controversy. Young people on both sides of the abortion issue say they have encountered opposition, and it can be brutal.
“I don’t want to discount anybody’s fear or hardship, but I think sometimes there’s just a call to be brave,” Shockley said.
Heightening awareness and cutting through people’s tendencies to block out controversial subjects is the biggest challenge Beeter and Bradley see in reaching their generation. As a potential mother herself someday, Beeter said, she doesn’t want future generations to miss the message and choose abortion as the easy way out of tough situation.
“I don’t want that for anyone,” she said.
Bradley said what she hopes to accomplish through her pro-life activities is to persuade birth parents to choose life, whether that involves raising a child or finding an adoptive home. The conversation is not about having a choice but making the right choice, she said.
“I am for women’s rights. I don’t want to take rights away from anybody else – men or women. We are not talking about your right to have a choice,” she said. “We are just saying the choice you make is not what we believe in.”