The stage seems set for a U.S. Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade almost 50 years after the ruling found restrictive state regulation of abortion to be unconstitutional, which would have drastic consequences for pregnant people across the country. While older reproductive justice advocates are ready for a resurgence of all-too-familiar barriers to reproductive rights, many in Gen Z have lived their entire lives with the nominal protection afforded by Roe v. Wade. The prospect of building an adult life in a country even more hostile to reproductive rights is yet another specter looming over a generation already struggling with climate change, rising white nationalism, economic uncertainty, and other social inequities, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
“We should be teenagers; instead, we’re having to worry about what could happen to our bodies and what could happen in the future,” said Haley Reyes, a 16-year-old in Texas, which recently passed the severely restrictive Senate Bill 8.
Texas isn’t the only state that has limited reproductive rights; the Guttmacher Institute has reported that 31 states, including Florida, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, have introduced new abortion bans this year alone. Additionally, 13 states have passed “trigger laws,” which will make abortion illegal if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Despite the increased attention on reproductive justice right now, efforts to chip away at abortion access in the country have been years in the making. Conservative attorneys spent decades bringing forth cases that undermined Roe, hoping that one day the Supreme Court would overturn the ruling altogether. In her article for Vox, Jillian Weinberger also noted that when Roe v. Wade was made official 50 years ago, Democrats treated the ruling as a “largely settled matter” while the anti-abortion movement spent considerable resources and time building out a pipeline of judicial nominees who would be partial to reversing it. Now it seems that anti-abortion supporters will reap the fruits of their labor while people seeking reproductive health care pay the costs.
For Gen Zers, the current threat to reproductive health care is just one more thing to worry about. A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that headline issues like immigration and sexual assault cause significant stress among young people—75% of Gen Zers surveyed reported that they are stressed because of mass shootings, and 58% are stressed due to climate change.
“Current events are clearly stressful for everyone in the country, but young people are really feeling the impact of issues in the news, particularly those issues that may feel beyond their control,” said APA’s CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr.
There’s a lot at stake, and Gen Zers aren’t under any illusions about the odds they’re going up against. Swara Patel, 19, from New York City founded the Period Society, a youth organization focused on menstrual health education for South Asian people, and acknowledges that the current wave of support for anti-abortion legislation is intimidating.
“Just seeing such a large demographic in this country that fights relentlessly to control the reproductive justice of others is scary,” Patel said.
Navigating more barriers with fewer resources
While abortion is still legal in the U.S., that doesn’t mean it’s easily accessible. There are still significant barriers to obtaining an abortion, especially for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). For a person in need of abortion care, every state requires some form of abortion counseling. Some states require in-person counseling, adding travel time and further costs. Some states also require that patients wait at least 24 hours in between the counseling and the procedure, often meaning that patients incur additional time and financial costs for multiple trips or overnight accommodations. And with the number of abortion clinics dwindling as more states pass restrictive abortion laws, people are increasingly likely to have to travel to different towns or even across state lines, costing them both time and money they may not have.
The barriers present multiple difficulties for people seeking abortions, and Planned Parenthood reports that the procedure alone can cost up to $750 and varies depending on the state, health care center, and a person’s insurance. Add on the potential expenses for travel, lodging, food, caregiving for children and other dependants, and possible follow-up medical visits, the cost of obtaining an abortion can be out of reach for many, especially considering racial and ethnic inequalities in health care, employment, and financial resources.
Additionally, Gen Z is young—the oldest Gen Zers are young adults in the early days of their professional careers, when personal financial resources are often lean, while younger Gen Zers aren’t yet legal adults on their own. For many, it may be impossible to obtain an abortion, especially if they’re still dependent on their parents.
“Some people like teenagers really can’t afford to have a child because they are children themselves,” said 15-year-old Avantika Singh. “They aren’t in a position where they can support a child on their own.”
Being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is a form of violence and is traumatizing, especially for teenagers and young adults who don’t have strong support systems. Singh is from upstate New York and worries about how a ban on abortion will affect her friends in conservative areas, especially given the amount of misinformation about abortion they’re exposed to.
“Young people typically have the least amount of wealth,” said LaKia Williams, a 23-year-old from California. “If [Roe v. Wade] is reversed, I think young people [will rush to] get on long-term birth control, a trend we saw right after Trump’s election, but this isn’t a viable solution because there’s no guarantee that you won’t become pregnant.”
A 2021 survey found that 67% of Gen Zers receive financial support from their parents, especially since many of them are still in high school, college, or just starting jobs after graduation. Many of them are also living with their parents or guardians due to pandemic-related struggles. The start of lockdowns since March 2020 saw many college students move back home, and according to census data, 58% of adults younger than 24 were still living with their parents by the end of 2021. Many Gen Zers continue to live at home even as pandemic restrictions ease because of rising housing prices. The high cost of living in cities, combined with low early career income levels and student debt, has caused many young people to rely on their parents for supplemental income and housing.
“None of us are prepared to take care of children,” said Patel. “Forcing that choice on someone is such a cruel, inhuman thing to do.”
BIPOC bear disproportionate risks with pregnancy
For Larada Lee, having her first abortion at 19 in Ohio was challenging. She was a sophomore in college when she became pregnant and couldn’t afford an abortion by herself, so she applied for financial assistance from a local abortion fund to pay the $525 fee. Now 21, Lee says that navigating health care in this country has never been easy for Black women like her—the obstacles to accessing abortion are much harder to overcome, and in her experience, this is by design, not coincidence.
“Abortion bans are about class and political warfare,” Lee said. “Most of the population living in this country who are uninsured are people of color.”
Lee says that overturning Roe v. Wade will only exacerbate difficulties for people of color, which makes it especially frustrating since BIPOC, particularly Black women, have been sounding the alarm for years about the tenuousness of abortion access in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of racism in the reproductive rights movement,” Lee said. “People just weren’t listening.”
Belan Yeshigeta, the 18-year-old co-founder of Generation Ratify, a youth organization working to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, notes how young people of color usually aren’t in stable positions to take on parenthood, especially because they are already at risk in a health care system that isn’t built for them. For instance, Black women have the highest abortion rate in the country and are also three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, facts that don’t surprise Yeshigeta since abortions and miscarriages have been common in her Black family.
“The fact that I might be forced to go through with a pregnancy is very scary,” she said.
Williams, who conducts research on contraceptive access at the University of California, San Francisco’s Bixby Center, notes how a near total ban on abortion will also perpetuate even more anti-Blackness by criminalizing a health care procedure that Black women are more likely to need at some point in their lives.
“If Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion is criminalized, it would just exacerbate the problem because we are already criminalized for [being Black],” Williams said.
She and others are worried about the legal consequences of BIPOC getting abortions in a post-Roe v. Wade world, but the criminalization of pregnancy among BIPOC goes back many years. Between 1973 and 2020, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women has identified at least 1,700 cases where people have faced criminal punishments for their pregnancy outcomes, including abortions, miscarriages, and drug use. Currently, 24 states have laws that classify drug use during pregnancy as child abuse, and as of 2021, four states have laws that explicitly criminalize self-managed abortions. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it’s likely that more BIPOC will face increased criminalization for seeking abortion care.
Immigrants also face unique hurdles navigating health care in the U.S., especially if they’re undocumented. Immigrants account for 17% of women of reproductive age in the U.S., and 23% of births, however, the existing disparities in care and institutional racism have bred an underlying distrust in the health care system within immigrant communities. A 2019 study found that 51% of immigrants were in their 20s when seeking abortions and had poverty-level or near poverty-level incomes. Almost half of those surveyed were also uninsured since current immigration policy prevents immigrants from taking advantage of government insurance programs like Medicaid. This means that for Gen Z immigrants who are still in school and less financially stable compared to older immigrants, overturning Roe closes an already limited number of avenues to safe and affordable abortions.
Now in her second year at Hunter College, Patel’s college experiences have only made her more concerned about how an overturn of Roe will exacerbate inequalities in higher education for BIPOC. Unplanned parenthood might force more Black and brown students to drop out from school, limiting their ability to earn a living wage and create stable lives for themselves.
“A lot of students are struggling to just stay afloat financially and get an education,” Patel said. “I think it would snatch even more opportunities [to build a future] from students of color, which are already so hard to obtain.”
Abortion is only one facet of full reproductive justice
The protection Roe v. Wade extended to nationwide abortion access may be eroded, but Gen Zers have their eyes on a future that doesn’t just include abortion access for all who need it, but one that offers full reproductive justice and bodily autonomy.
“Abortion bans do not stop all abortions—they stop safe abortions, especially for people of color and the youth,” said Reyes.
Reyes says she is doing everything she can to spread awareness about the ruling, especially for her generation. Last month, she wrote an article in Ms. Magazine about why abortion is essential health care, and she recently started volunteering with Planned Parenthood as a way to become more active, saying the organization has taught her a lot about the full scope of reproductive health.
Beyond her full-time job in reproductive health, Williams hosts the Spotify podcast “Black Feminist Rants,” discussing abortion rights, Black feminism, and reproductive justice. Given the recent threats to Roe, she’s released episodes explaining the court case and how young people can get involved.
“A lot has changed just by young people speaking out,” she said. “We’re able to digitally organize easily and learn how to become active in causes we care about.”
Williams is also virtually fundraising for abortions alongside other young people she connected with in the early days of the pandemic. Eventually, she hopes to be an abortion provider so she can help pregnant people seeking reproductive autonomy in a more direct way.
Other young people like Yeshigeta are focusing on legislation to widen the door to reproductive justice. Last year through Generation Ratify, Yeshigeta advocated for the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). Now, she’s working on her organization’s campaign “Rally for Roe,” which aims to educate young people about the court case. Yeshigeta is in charge of working with the communications and diversity teams to craft messaging on the issue, and encourages other young people to get involved in whatever way they can.
“I think that the rollback of Roe v. Wade is going to be just the beginning of a whole onslaught of rollbacks on the rights of women of color, minorities, and queer people,” she said. “It’s important that we are ready to fight for these rights at every turn so we don’t have a dismal future.”
Patel’s advocacy includes stressing the need to include the voices of more than cis women in discussion abortion access and crafting reproductive policies and priorities.
“Most pregnancy-related conversations center cis women, but we need to include the experiences of people beyond the [gender] binary,” Patel said. “Anyone who believes in the right to make their own choices and have dignity and respect must fight against this draconian movement taking place.”
Whether or not Roe v. Wade is overruled later this year, Lee says that it’s important to pay attention to recent state abortion laws that are already doing a lot of harm. Regardless of laws and policies, people are still going to have sex and seek abortions. She may hope for the best, but she’s preparing for the worst.
“We need to be thinking more expansively about what abortion access and rights look like without this ruling, because when Roe v. Wade falls, we still have each other,” Lee said.