Two young people walk into a congressional briefing on proposed restrictions to abortion access and funding. They see their peers, their friends sprinkled throughout the crowd. The briefing begins. Expert after expert shares the devastating impact these restrictions would have on various communities, but there is no mention of youth. So, one of them asks: "What impact would these restrictions have on young people?" Not one of the "experts" could answer.
The punchline of this sad-but-true tale was deafening silence -- and it's no laughing matter. As a group, a community, a vulnerable population, young people and our needs have continually been left out of the debate around reproductive and sexual health and rights. Make no mistake: together with communities of color and low-income communities, young people have the most to lose if the heinous No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (HR 3) and Protect Life Act (HR 358) -- popularly known as the "Stupak on Steroids" agenda -- become law.
The financial realities facing young people -- students, those with entry-level positions and those affected by the recession -- help explain why these bills are especially detrimental to our age group. At all educational levels, we are much more likely to be living in poverty or subsisting on low incomes than older people. As a result, more than 10 million young people lack adequate (or any) health insurance, according to U.S. PIRG, and many cannot afford the high cost of many forms of contraception and may not be eligible for subsidies.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, young people already have the highest rate of unintended pregnancy of any age group. Among young women, more than one in every ten has an unintended pregnancy -- twice the rate for women overall. Access to abortion care and insurance coverage for abortion is critical to these young women, as is better sexuality education and access to contraception.
Sadly, young people are also more likely to face additional legal and procedural roadblocks to accessing reproductive health services. In fact, these barriers are so difficult that many young women are forced into having a later abortion -- which is more difficult to obtain, often available only in a hospital and much more costly.
At any age, abortion is not an easy decision but is often a necessary one. This is no different for young people. MTV's recent special, No Easy Decision, featured three young women who made the decision to have an abortion. One of the women, Natalia, was a junior in high school when she found out she was pregnant. Terrified to tell her family, she was forced to seek a judicial bypass in order to receive abortion care. "I stood in front of a judge and asked him to please not make me tell my parents," she explained, "And they granted it, but it's kind of hard to stand in front of a stranger in an empty court room all by yourself with no one standing next to you at 17 begging for permission to make your own decision." She sold her prom ticket to come up with the out-of-pocket costs of the procedure.
These stories are almost always absent from the national conversation over abortion rights, as stigma and fear pressure women (especially young women) into silence about their experiences. Yet, Natalia's story perfectly illustrates why young people need fewer, not more, barriers to accessing healthcare and insurance coverage for abortion -- and why access to comprehensive sex education, contraception and family planning services are so important. Yet, young people are almost always the first targets of anti-choice legislation at the local, state and national level. Whether it is mandatory parental notification and consent laws or late-term abortion restrictions, anti-choice proponents have been hard at work putting up barrier after barrier for young people to access abortion. For many young people, the "Stupak on Steroids" agenda would be the final, insurmountable barrier to an already obstacle-filled process.
But then, that's exactly the point. The politicians pushing these bills want to impose their moral and religious views on all of us -- whether we share those views or not. Our generation has grown up in the most diverse environment in American history. We have a deep respect for differing religious beliefs and political views. We also have a responsibility to speak out when any group attempts to impose their ideology on the rest of us.
Decision-makers and those in power may not be aware of the impact that the "Stupak on Steroids" agenda will have on young people, but we are. We are speaking out against this legislation because we know what it will do to us as individuals and communities. We are voting, tax-paying citizens who know how to use the power of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to educate our peers about the devastating impact of this legislation. We are calling Congress and holding meetings with our representatives. We are letting them know that if they cave on our reproductive rights now, they will feel it at the ballot box in 2012. We need leaders who have the best interests of our health and futures in mind and who are willing to fight for what is just.
We constantly hear the laments about the need for young people to engage with the political process -- well, here we are. You can't lecture us about responsibility and then take away our fundamental rights to make responsible decisions about our own bodies and lives.
We must make sure young people have a place at decision-making tables. We must make sure our rights are protected, even when it is more politically complicated to do so. We must invest in the time, the activism, the talent of young people. Doing anything short of this will make for an even sadder punchline to an already terrible joke.