By LILY STARBUCK
Where one millennial stands on abortion rights. And why she’s still fighting.
Sylvia Abdullah greeted shoppers at the entrance to a cramped, sun-filled pre-war apartment in the heart of Soho. She maneuvered her way past an overflowing coat rack and over boxes, bags, and piles of second hand clothes and tchotchkes, as she showed them into the living room-turned-rummage shop. Two women in their mid-40s sat at a table by the door adding up $1-$15 frocks. Many shoppers gravitated toward the baby grand piano on the other side of the room, where Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, was signing copies of her book.
Abdullah, a 25-year-old native New Yorker and Barnard College graduate, is a volunteer with the New York Abortion Access Fund, the host of Saturday’s pop-up shop fundraiser. NYAAF is a non-profit founded by a group of Barnard students in 2001 with a mission to help anyone in or traveling to New York State afford a safe, legal abortion. It continues to grow from its original 13-person all volunteer board of directors with advocates like Abdullah.
As an assistant program officer at a grant-making foundation, Abdullah volunteers for a week every month on the 27/4 NYAAF hotline. Abdullah listens to messages from people who need help affording an abortion: the choice to say “people” and not “women” is part of Abdullah and NYAAF’s mission, pointing to a minority of uterus-bearing individuals who do not identify as female. Abdullah responds the most urgent situations first. She will call or, preferably, text throughout they day to get through all the messages. When it’s not her week on the hotline, she helps to organize and staff fundraising events.
Some might wonder why Abdullah and her colleagues continue to fight for abortion rights, especially in New York State, where it seems the pro-choice fight is mostly won. But for Abdullah, the fight over abortion rights goes beyond a women’s right to choose. She sees economic inequality and certain social stigmas about abortion as two reasons to keep fighting.
Economic inequality is the major motivator for NYAAF. Abdullah echoes their mission. Abortion should not only be legal, she says, but it should be financially accessible too. While more women the right to an abortion than in previous years, it can still be hard to travel to a clinic or afford the procedure.
Abdullah’s personal motivation also lies in the stigmas surrounding abortion today. “Abortion is the fabric of our lives,” she said at a recent New York University debate held as part of Jonathan Zimmerman’s “Culture Wars” class. Abdullah criticized what she believes is a media portrayal of abortion as the answer to only drastic situations, like pregnancy from rape or when a mother’s life is at risk. In politics, admitting to an abortion is only somewhat acceptable if it is the result of drastic circumstances, she adds, pointing to Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who campaigned, unsuccessfully, for governor in the recent mid-tern elections. Davis admitted to having two abortions for medical reasons. Even then, many media outlets painted her abortions in a negative light.
Abdullah wants her generation to see abortion without this stigma. As she spoke to the NYU “Culture Wars” class of almost 60 students, she stressed the reality of most abortions in America. A majority of the women who get abortions are already a parent to one or more children. Nine in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. More white women than black or Latino women receive abortions. Abdullah sees many people in her generation living with false conceptions and stereotypes of abortion.
While a strong majority of students she spoke to that day expressed liberal views on abortion rights, national views from people the same age are different. A 2013 Pew Research Study shows that millennials, age 18 to 33, are not more liberal on select social issues like abortion rights and gun control compared to previous generations. Millennials are considered the most liberal (and largest) generation, yet their views on abortion are not.
This is of primary interest to professor Zimmerman, who hosted Abdullah at NYU. He probes his class to think about why these two issues are so stagnant in comparison to same-sex marriage, where we have seen an overwhelming, majority support in just the past five years.
A 2011 “Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality” study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute tries to answer why many millennials are not more liberal on abortion. The study found that most millennials want legalized abortions to be available in all or most cases; however, a majority is also conflicted on the morality of abortion, saying they would not publicly support the legality of it. A majority of millennials thinks there is something inherently wrong with abortion but they still want the choice to be there – to be legal.
Zimmerman sees this issue on morality in his undergraduate students. “My students in general are often very uncomfortable making moral claims,” he said, “It’s very hard to get even an NYU student who is pro-choice student to say “Well abortion is wrong but I think it should be legal anyway.” Zimmerman wants his millennial students to see that a libertarian view is a moral view in itself. To say that an individual should be because to do whatever he or she chooses makes a moral assumption of whatever the issue is, like abortion. The issue of morality that the PRRI study raises, resonates with the moral stigmas Abdullah is concerned with. Even if abortion is legal, there are other barriers, she says.
Statistics about her own “liberal” generation push Abdullah to keep fighting in her work with NYAAF and in her personal interactions too. She looks at all the small ways in which abortion is limited and stigmatized. The conservative arguments about when life begins are not popular, she stressed over our interview. The conservatives are popular and persuasive on their smaller regulations, making accessibility to abortion more difficult. “I do not think the fight is over,” she said, “because abortion rights are continuing to be cracked down on.”