Broadening the meaning of pro-choice

This Sunday, people of all ages will converge on Washington for the March for Women's Lives, in support of abortion rights and reproductive freedom.

For a generation of women, Roe v. Wade - the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide - was the most tangible step toward control of their bodies and their destinies. But as you look closely at the faces in Sunday's crowd, you will see the beginnings of a change. I will be among the thousands of young women - and men - aged 30 and under who are joining the reproductive rights movement our mothers started, and making it our own.

For the millions of Americans born and raised since Roe v. Wade, access to abortion has been a lifelong fact. When we talk about the reproductive rights movement, it isn't one that's defined by abortion. It's far simpler - and yet far more complicated. Because Generation X is Generation Sex.

Whether we agree with it or not, our society constantly inundates young people with conflicting images of sex. From Britney Spears kissing Madonna at the MTV awards to Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl, even the most sheltered young person can't avoid the sexual innuendo that is a national pastime. Even Congress has contributed to the deluge, moving the conversation of one president's sex life from the locker room to a national, public discussion played out in the media.

As long as sex sells, we can only expect the next person, be it an elected official, celebrity, or news organization, to push the envelope further.

But when it comes to talking with young people about the consequences of real sexual experience, despite all the in-your-face exposure, too often the first thing we do is tell kids to shut up.

In states throughout the country, teachers have to abide by gag rules, preventing them from discussing sex in the classroom. Schools and libraries throughout the nation have been instructed by Congress to install Internet filters on all their computers to prevent students from accessing sex sites - but the filters have proven to more successfully block safe-sex sites than pornographic sites.

The Bush administration's answer to all this sex is simple: abstinence. This conveys a clear message to young people: See sex on TV, hear about sex on the radio, buy sex at the mall, get sex spam in your e-mail inbox, but just don't have sex.

The consequence of this hypocrisy is the endangerment of youth. We have a new generation that includes young "virgins" who have oral sex; but because they think oral sex isn't sex, they don't worry about disease. Incorrect information about emergency contraception has stopped many young women from seeking the protection they need when condoms break or are used improperly. Even those youth who do remain complete virgins still have to deal with the images they see and their friends' choices; but, more often than not, they have to deal with it without the insight of adults.

My generation has been branded with many statistics from various polls and surveys:

• 4 out of 10 women have an abortion in their lifetimes.

• 5 out of 10 young people acquire a sexually transmitted disease by age 25.

• 6 out of 10 women have first intercourse by age 18.

• 8 out of 10 women know about emergency contraception.

But I would add to this list another statistic that needs no poll or study to prove it:

• 10 out of every 10 young people have to deal with sex every day.

The rising generation of leaders in the sexual health movement are redefining what being pro-choice means. It is about true access to safe-sex education, emergency contraception, nonjudgmental healthcare for gay and lesbian youth, HIV/AIDS prevention, and universal healthcare.

We demand the right to choose to talk about sex in order to change, chart, and save our own lives.

The irony is that we're being more adult than those currently in the White House. There's something juvenile about playing with sexual innuendo in the media, and then not being able to handle a serious, responsible conversation about sex.

Like every generation before us, we're changing the culture of our nation. We didn't put sex on the evening news - but because it's there, we will demand honesty about sex and how it effects youth. We, as a new generation of leaders, will make our mothers' gains in reproductive rights meaningful by defining what it means to us and the world we live in 30 years later.

Alea Woodlee is executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, a cosponsor of the 10-in-10 Gathering of young people aged 18-30 in Washington to be held on Saturday, the eve of the March for Women's Lives.

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