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What is Roe v. Wade? Many Young People Have No Clue

On Tuesday January 22, 2013, pro-choice advocates will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only 44% of millennials actually know what issue Roe involved.

So let’s cut to the chase, millennials: The Court ruling in Roe v. Wade affirmed Americans' fundamental right to privacy and specifically held that women have a right to choose to terminate their pregnancies, effectively decriminalizing abortion in the United States.

It’s estimated that 35% of American women will have an abortion by the time they turn 45. Millennial women of all ages, races, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses and religious backgrounds have had or will have an abortion. And as a result of Roe v. Wade, no matter what state they’re in, they will have access to reproductive care that is safe and legal.

So why don’t millennials know about Roe? Seventy-four percent of baby boomers and 62% of all respondents knew that the case was about abortion rights. 

Some might argue that millennials are bored with the abortion debate; other millennial activists (pro-choice and anti-choice) would beg to differ. But baby boomers and other older generations have been living through the “culture wars” for some time now. Many baby boomers remember a time when abortion was illegal in their state, and some may even remember when the decision in Roe was announced. 

But if asked to answer what other key Supreme Court decisions were about, like Gideon v. Wainwright (the right to indigent defense) or Marbury v. Madison (establishment of judicial review), it is likely most would draw a blank, regardless of their generation. According to survey data, most Americans don’t know much about their government, but their knowledge of the American judiciary is especially limited. This isn’t simply because Americans are willfully ignorant; the American judicial branch was set up to be removed from the public. Justices on the Supreme Court are appointed for life, so after the confirmation confrontation (whose confrontational nature is only a recent phenomenon), many drift off into obscurity in the minds of most Americans. Recent major decisions on campaign finance and the Affordable Care Act have brought the justices to the fore for a while, but they are likely to return to the shadows soon enough. (After they decide the gay marriage cases, that is.)

So is it understandable that millennials don’t know Roe? Yes. But is it acceptable?

As a millennial who is currently devoting her career to protecting access to reproductive justice, I think it’s important to warn millennials against taking their reproductive rights for granted. Access to abortion, even if it’s something you would never do, is essential to women’s autonomy. With Roe v. Wade, women (and their partners) gained the right to choose when to start a family. Women gained the guarantee to life-saving medical treatment. Women gained the confidence to know that they have full control over their bodies and their health care.

There are folks working hard to revoke these rights. In some states, anti-choice politicians are pushing for longer waiting periods, biased counseling, and other restrictions to prevent women from making personal and private decisions. Whether these anti-choice advocates oppose abortion due to deeply held religious beliefs or have moral objections to the changes access to full reproductive health care has brought on our society, the effects of overturning Roe v. Wade would be most acutely felt by millennials and future generations, as women between the ages of 15 and 30 are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies and choose to receive abortion care.

The fights for abortion rights, and all of women’s rights, were hard won. A majority of millennials do believe that we should maintain the status quo and that women’s access to reproductive justice should no longer be a key political issue. Even if they can’t name the case that won those rights (again, if you’re still reading, it’s Roe v. Wade, people), I hope our generation will remain firm in our guardianship of Americans’ fundamental right to privacy when it comes to reproductive health care.

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