01/22/2008 04:52 pm ET Updated 6 days ago

Roe v. Wade Awakening

The YouTube video is only three minutes and eighteen seconds long, but it's enough to make even the most casual feminist drop chin to the floor in horror, convinced that centuries of progress have become undone.

In it, a pale, mop-haired young man named Will Albino takes to an all-girls school seeking signatures for a petition to end woman's suffrage. He is equipped with a clipboard, a cameraman, and a lot of chutzpah. The petition is a hoax. Mr. Albino just wants to prove a point -- that today's young girls don't know what's what.

The school, Padua Academy, seems like a learned place. It has been recognized as a National School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It has a powerful motto: Where Girls with Dreams become Women of Vision. But Padua gives Mr. Albino more than enough fodder to prove that its girls are lacking fundamental knowledge about women's history. Mr. Albino goes from one student to the next, and asks each to join his cause to "stop the injustice." The girls, most of them dressed in school uniform, take to his entreaty almost immediately.

"Women's suffrage is really bad," one girl says. "I thought it already ended," another adds. And so on for a few more torturous petition-signing minutes.

The clip, which has been viewed 189,529 times since it was posted in April 2006, proves how far we've come since 1920, when women first gained the right to vote. You may wish these Padua girls paid more attention in history class, or Googled the women's movement in their spare time. But can you blame them for confusing suffrage with suffering? The truth is that to these young women, a woman's right to vote is a fact of life. A given. Not something even up for debate.

We can only imagine what would happen if we went back to Padua, or any other high school, and asked about Roe vs. Wade. We can just picture students' blank faces and arched eyebrows. We can just hear their stalling "ums" and "I don't knows."

To commemorate the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade today, three Christian conservative groups have combined forces to change all of this. They've launched a survey website, to test site visitors' knowledge of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision and fill in the gaps of what they don't know.

The underlying hope, of course, is that the RoeIQ test can turn many pro-life.

Among some of the questions in the survey: "How many abortions have been performed in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973?" "Which of our nation's founding documents contains the phrase "right to an abortion"?" The answers are intended to surprise (and attract) the most liberal survey-taker: since Roe vs. Wade, tens of millions of women have received abortions, and the "right to an abortion" is not in any of our nation's founding documents.

It's a clever survey, highlighting the need for more education around Roe vs. Wade. But it's also a misleading one. Noticeably absent from the survey are questions about women's health, quality of life, and privacy -- all things that Roe vs. Wade ensured. For example, the RoeIQ test does not show how legalizing abortion in 1973 resulted in dramatically fewer abortion-related deaths and infections. It does not show that poor and low-income women account for more than half of U.S. abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and that one of the primary reasons a woman seeks an abortion is because she feels she would provide compromised care for the unborn child, or the rest of her children if she were to have the child. The RoeIQ test certainly does not examine what other sorts of conclusions about a woman's constitutional rights we could make if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

Despite these glaring oversights, to the outside viewer, the test seems very real - and fair. The site itself seems apolitical (We can expect both sides in the abortion debate...) and friendly (If you think you know Roe, we think you'll be surprised!) The three Christian conservative groups linked with - Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America - do not appear in the homepage or in the "About" section. Site visitors could not possibly know that the groups behind also denigrate homosexuality and advocate for school prayer, abstinence-only education, and intelligent design. The groups' logos appear inconspicuously at the very end of the test, at the very bottom of the page. Even the name of the test -- RoeIQ -- masks the site's intent. By linking a high score in the survey with a high Intelligence Quotient (IQ), it implies that the questions have been comprehensive, that the high scorer has a full body of knowledge about Roe vs. Wade.

But the site is veiled propaganda. There are additional questions about test participants' church attendance, political philosophy, and educational status. RoeIQ wants to find out more about you. It wants to find out more about your friends. It wants to convince you to turn against Roe vs. Wade.

We need to do better. Today, on the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, we need to make sure we know and teach the facts. All the facts. Too often the abortion debate divides Americans along moral, religious, and political lines. The discussion needs to happen along health and liberty lines, too. We can't let a new generation of women -- like the Padua girls who didn't know about suffrage -- grow up thinking that Roe vs. Wade was unimportant to the women's movement.

If the recently released film Juno captures how we talk about abortion today, it's in alarming binary -- and ethical -- terms. In the movie, Juno becomes pregnant and is forced to decide whether or not to have a baby. She's only 16, she's not religious; she opts for abortion. But once at the abortion clinic, Juno starts to question her decision. She meets a sweet pro-life classmate protesting outside. She meets an indifferent receptionist inside. All the women in the waiting room look depressed and alone. This is the real abortion; it's murder, it's cold, it's isolating. Pregnancy? That's just lots of funny hormonal swings, ultrasound goo, and blue Slurpees.

What you don't see in Juno is the real teenage pregnancy. You don't see that real pregnant teens ages 15-19 are less likely to receive prenatal care and gain appropriate weight than women ages 20 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You don't see that because of this, babies born to teenage mothers can be premature, underweight, and have birth defects -- effects can have devastating impacts on the child's development. And you don't see how teenage pregnancy can have negative long-term effects for both mother and child; statistically they are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to live in poverty, according to National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

In the end Juno chooses not to have an abortion, but what if she'd wanted one, and the abortion clinic -- as uninviting as it may have been to her -- didn't exist?

This is the threat that not fully understanding Roe vs. Wade poses. Today many liberal young people take the right to abortion for granted; they don't hope to have an abortion, but they know they could have one if needed. Do they know there was once a struggle to get this right, and that the pendulum of thought is swinging back -- abetted by the Christian right?

We need to remember, honor -- and teach -- the importance of Roe vs. Wade. One of the very same groups behind, Concerned Women for America, also condemns abortion and comprehensive sexual education. It promotes abstinence-only education, instead. This is no way to address what's going on today; the reality is that nearly half of high schoolers have had sex, and one-third of sexually active high schoolers did not use condoms during their last sexual intercourse. There's an urgent need for more comprehensive sexual education in our schools, so that abortion is not used as a contraceptive. Abortion is no light matter. But neither is ushering a child into this world.

In the YouTube video "End Women's Suffrage," Mr. Albino moves swiftly across Padua's campus -- from fields to school buses, tall girls to short -- collecting his treasured signatures. It's a jarring sight, a glimpse of a future where women willingly sign away their rights to vote; their voices. We can picture them signing "Reverse Roe vs. Wade" just as easily. Mr. Albino circulates his petition to the tune of a They Might Be Giants song, called "Am I Awake?"

The question is, are we?