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Are pro-choice Millennials 'complacent'?

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been attacked for saying that women born after Roe v. Wade take abortion rights for granted. Millennials' views on abortion may or may not be changing, but their reasons are. 

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    Pro-choice and pro-life protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in this January 24, 2011 file photo, taken shortly before the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision protecting women's right to an abortion.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/ AP/ File
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Women born after Roe v. Wade don't know how good they have it, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said on Wednesday. 

Ms. Wasserman Schultz sees "a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided," she told Ana Marie Cox of The New York Times mid-interview: a quick one-line answer to a question about women's support for presidential contender Hillary Clinton. 

But once the article was published under the title "Debbie Wasserman Schultz Thinks Young Women Are Complacent," Millennial activists were racing to tell #DearDebbie why she had it wrong.

But others say Rep. Wasserman Schultz is on to something. 18- to 29-year-olds are now just as likely as seniors to believe abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances," according to a 2009 Gallup poll: 23 percent of 20-somethings agreed, as did 21 percent of those over 65.

Since the seventies, the number of seniors opposing all abortions has dropped by 11 percentage points. That position grew by 5 percent among young adults during the same period.

Overall, 50 percent of Americans identify as "pro-choice" in 2015, and 44 percent as "pro-life." 53 percent of those between 18 and 34 say they're pro-choice.

Today's seniors, and middle-aged women, were generations immediately impacted by the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, which protected women's rights to an abortion throughout the United States. Many of them helped lead organizations that promoted reproductive health access, entering the debate via campus activism. Now, some wonder who will fill their shoes. 

When Nancy Keenan stepped down as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the oldest such group in the nation, she told The Washington Post "There’s an opportunity for a new and younger leader." 

"This issue has got to be a voting issue for [Millennials]" to maintain abortion rights, she said. 

Fifty-three percent of voters under 34 are pro-choice, and many of them are vocal – adamantly so. Backlash against Rep. Wasserman Schultz, including calls for her resignation, prompted the chairwoman to quickly issue a new statement.

"We need women of every generation – mine included – to stand up and speak out," she wrote, including her own age group among those who lacked a "sense of urgency after Roe v. Wade settled our right to a safe and legal abortion." (The chairwoman was born in 1966.) Red states' recent wave of abortion restrictions has "awakened a sleeping giant in the millennials leading the fight in defense of the progress we've made."

But despite the many groups organizing young feminists around reproductive rights, such as Planned Parenthood's Generation Action Network, an "intensity gap" persists in the engagement of pro-choice women versus pro-life ones. NARAL's own poll, from 2010, showed that a majority of pro-life voters under 30 considered the issue "very important." Only 26 percent of pro-choicers said the same. 

Religion can be correlated with many Millennial groups' abortion views. White Catholics are split down the middle, despite the Church's firm pro-life stance, Hispanic Catholics and Protestants lean pro-life, and 80 percent of white evangelicals say abortion should be illegal, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. 

Regardless of their opinion on abortion's legality, 51 percent of Millennials believe that it is morally wrong. That attitude has made some see recent efforts to make discussion of abortion more open and accepting, like the #ShoutYourAbortion movement, as not brave, but "desperate," according to Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America. 

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby believes technology also plays a role in driving down the number of abortions, and Millennials' support for them. As he wrote in June, there has been

an empathy-driven reaction against abortion among the generation of Americans that grew up in a world of vivid ultrasound images, and among the miracles of neonatal medicine that now make it possible even for babies born extremely prematurely to survive and flourish.

"They grew up with the technology that clearly shows life in the womb is just that – life," Ms. Hawkins says via email. 

Pro-choice organizers vary in their explanations for a perceived lack of engagement differ: are young women changing their opinions, or just their reasons?

Some say decreased focus on abortion highlights growing awareness of other issues related to health and sexuality, or the intersectionality of those topics. In 2011, Boston University changed the name of its Women's Resource Center to the "Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism," for instance, reflecting some young activists' urge to make resources more inclusive: including not just more issues, but more people.

Campus sexual assault, and transgender issues, for example, continue to make headlines and spur student reforms. Many link reproductive choice to larger debates about justice and healthcare, such as the right to parental leave. 

But those connections go both ways. Pro-life voters can point to progress for mothers and children, such as affordable medical care, and say that it decreases the need for abortion in the first place.

"We should no longer be asking, 'Will the US have a major shift in its abortion policy?' Fordham University's Charles C. Camosy, an associate professor of Christian ethics, wrote for USA Today. "The more realistic question is: What will the major shift in US abortion policy look like?"

They will be the generation to finally bring us things such as mandatory paid paternal leave, affordable child care and strictly enforced gender discrimination laws in the workplace. In short, they will refuse to choose between protecting mother and embryo.

But if Roe v. Wade helped fuel pro-life movements, the reverse may be true now that pro-life activists are claiming victory in so many states that have recently rolled back abortion rights: more than 230 restrictions since 2010

"Our grandmothers and mothers fought these battles with intensity," pro-choice EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock told The Washington Post in 2012. "When you’re fighting to hold onto something, rather than get something, it gets less intense."

Today's new battles, including controversies over fetal tissue and Planned Parenthood attacks, may put young pro-choice women in an unfamiliar role: fighting to restore, not just maintain, reproductive rights. 

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