Maybe it was the French. Watching this spring as they erupted in protest—grinding their own cities to a halt, disrupting mass transit, letting trash pile up, torching their president’s favorite restaurant—over the specter of pension reform made us feel a bit…sheepish.
Our own previous spring had brought the most devastating setback to American women’s rights in half a century. The Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs leaked in early May of last year, then landed with a miserable thud in late June. People marched in front of government buildings in big cities and small towns across the country, crowds gathered in front of the Supreme Court, students staged walkouts, and activists yelled outside the private homes of Justices John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh.
But the backlash felt so modest compared to the gravity of the loss. The most dispiriting reaction came from our pro-choice elected leaders, who offered neither a road map to fix this nor an appropriate sense of outrage: President Biden issued an enraging statement the morning after the leak that simply suggested people vote for pro-choice leaders later that year. House Democrats rushed through several bills protecting abortion access, with the full knowledge they’d all fail in the Senate, which of course they did. And in July, Biden signed a lifeless executive order instructing the Health Department to give doctors legal advice and to look into that whole period-tracking-app data thing. He acknowledged that abortion access couldn’t be enshrined without more pro-choice leaders in charge (like…himself?!) and again told folks to vote. Come fall, our initial ire felt like it was morphing into numb exhaustion.
Then came the drip-drip-drip of dystopian headlines, viral threads, and nightmarish anecdotes, which keep coming a year later: There was the Tennessee mother rendered infertile after she was denied treatment for an ectopic pregnancy; the woman in Texas who dug nail marks in her walls when she was sent home to bleed out her miscarriage; the Oklahoma mom with cancerous pockets all over her placenta instructed to sit in a parking lot until her symptoms got worse; the Christian reality star whose miscarriage (or was it an abortion?) was grotesquely debated in public detail.
The stories are monstrous, downright depraved. And so the question rises again and again: Truly, how are we letting this happen? Why aren’t we burning buildings to the ground? How can we genuinely expect things to ever go back to the way they were? Automatic donations to Planned Parenthood and voting every few years have never seemed more futile.
“I’m definitely guilty of complacency. It makes me physically ill when I try to wrap my mind around it,” says Lark, 36, of Pasadena, California. Abby, 38, of Chicago, Illinois, says, “Because the anti-abortion movement spent decades fighting for something that always seemed impossible until it wasn’t, it feels like it will take a similar length of time to undo it, even though I desperately hope that’s not the case.”
Some don’t even see reproductive rights as a front-and-center issue anymore. “It seems like abortion has gone back to what it’s always been, which is a rallying cry for political parties around elections,” says Clarke, 25, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. “The young people I know—on both sides of the abortion ‘debate’—seem to be focused on more pressing issues, like mass shootings.”
The Supreme Court decision and subsequent abortion restrictions enacted across the country have already altered many young people’s family and career plans. “I’m a queer, disabled Southerner and I want to raise a family here, but I’m so scared of the risks pregnancy presents for me these days,” says Nina, 28, of Atlanta, Georgia. “I personally feel like we’re expected to turn up and vote based on the loss of our rights, but the people we vote for don’t show up for us.” Aly, 35, of Brooklyn, New York, left her job in marketing to become a nurse in the hopes of providing abortions in the future. “Despite making this huge change, I still feel personally helpless and scared—to the point that I am considering having my tubes tied,” she says. “Above all, my uterus has become a liability.”
Experts and leaders in the repro rights space certainly get it. “We are inheriting a world where the cards are sincerely stacked against us in every sense. There is this real threat of climate disaster, the normalization of mass shootings, the stripping away of our bodily autonomy,” says Yaneth Flores, public policy director at Avow, an abortion advocacy nonprofit in Texas. “‘Complacent’ is not the word but ‘defeated,’” says Mattie Kahn, author of the new book Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions. “There’s a sense of whack-a-mole as a socially engaged person,” she says. “The issues just pile up. Where should I possibly start? What can I possibly do that will be helpful?”
Since Roe fell, 18 states have succeeded in enacting de facto bans on abortion, and the attempts of several more are currently tied up in the courts. Yet it’s still possible to convince yourself that you’ll figure out a way to end an unwanted pregnancy if you need to. “If you’re in Florida or Texas, at least there’s a way for you to go somewhere else. If anti-abortion folks succeed in changing those things, I do think we’d see more of a backlash,” says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at UC-Davis and the author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present. “Now, there’s a sense that whatever is out there can be circumvented.”
And although a Texas judge suspended the FDA’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone in April 2023, it’s still available as of press time while the appeals court hears oral arguments. “I think the fact that there are other ways to get an abortion today that didn’t exist at the time of Roe—that’s a factor in this complacency,” says Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is, at 86, a lifelong feminist leader.
Then there’s the regional disassociation, which is precisely what many anti-choice lobbyists have worked toward: a state-by-state erosion of abortion access that makes the problem seem far away. “Unfortunately, there is a tendency some people have in the U.S. where if something dark happens in the South, they will just say, ‘Well, that’s the South,’” Ziegler observes.
So yes, many of us feel deflated and burned out from the barrage of horrors this decade has gifted us so far. But there’s bad news for anti-abortion activists and politicians hoping to capitalize on that fatigue: It is certainly not universal among Gen Zers and millennials, many of whom have seized (and already impacted) the abortion fight in undeniably significant and notably new ways.
To start, “Gen Z is action-oriented. They don’t want to be people who raise money on campus and then send it off to an organization—they want to be doing the work,” notes Kahn, who points to the group Emergency Contraception for Every Campus, which helps students distribute Plan B to their peers. “They really love knowing that they’re helping people immediately in a time of need whose dorm room they can see, who are part of their community.”
That’s true of 17-year-old Eve in Utah, who’s been organizing around reproductive rights since she was in eighth grade. “I live in Salt Lake City, and I’ve consistently seen that more conservative areas are underserved even by advocacy organizations and nonprofits,” she says. While she co-organized and spoke at rallies last spring—attending alongside her 86-year-old grandmother—she saves the most energy for her classmates. “At my high school, I have the ability to make the most change, and I try to make sure that my peers know their rights and how to access those rights.”
It’s possible that older folks are relying on outdated models of activism—like marches, political donations, or civil disobedience—to evaluate how engaged younger people are. “A lot of those marches and rallies are organized by nonprofits. I don’t know that that’s where young people want to be. I think they’re finding other opportunities to engage,” says Flores.
Then there’s that constant exhortation—vote! vote! vote!—and young people are doing that too. “Every anti-abortion ballot measure that’s been put out there, every single one, has been defeated, especially in red states. They couldn’t have done it without the young people’s vote,” says Representative Judy Chu (CA-28), who was arrested with 100 others at a post-Dobbs protest last spring. The 2018 and 2022 midterm elections had the highest youth voter turnout in three decades, while half of all eligible people under 30 voted in the 2020 presidential election, a double-digit increase over 2016. Complacent, our asses.
If you’re approaching the Dobbs anniversary with any amount of guilt or you’re feeling ill after another week of unspeakable headlines or you just want to do more—and we could all do more, right?—the experts and activists young and old with whom Cosmo spoke for this story have loads of ideas.
Remember that the abortion conversation is easier now than it was in the ’60s and ’70s.
Today, there’s more consensus on the issue than there was 50 years ago. The majority of Americans have supported Roe v. Wade consistently, in poll after poll, for decades. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that only 28 percent of responders wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and once it was, Pew found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapproved of the Dobbs decision. American support for abortion access generally hovers between 53 percent and 70 percent. Simply put, abortion access is popular. “You can’t find 70 percent of Americans to agree on anything,” Ziegler points out. “Seventy percent of Americans don’t like the weekend better than Monday!”
Let other people’s work inspire you.
Yes, the process might seem Sisyphean, but someone a click away on the ’gram keeps fighting the good fight, and you can just follow their lead (and ask how to join their efforts). “I get through the day because of my community of badass young and old and trans pro-abortion and pro-abolition Texans,” says Flores, who offers the Buckle Bunnies of San Antonio and the Texas Equal Access Fund, based in Dallas-Fort Worth, as examples of groups with very young founders and staff who personally inspire her. “There are days that I feel tired, for sure,” says Connie Adler, MD, board chair of Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (GRR!), who’s been involved in the movement since the late ’60s. But “there’s joy in working for justice together. That connection brings meaning to your life.”
Find something tiny to do in your immediate area.
“It can be as simple as googling ‘abortion advocacy in my state,’” says Representative Chu. Identify groups already doing the work, then reach out to donate a few dollars or see how you can volunteer. “The Abortion Care Network has information about indie clinics all around the country,” says Adler. “They need drivers to take people for abortions in states like Illinois, which is an island in the middle of abortion-free zones. They need daycare. There are also people who accompany folks [during the procedure], like abortion doulas. There are all kinds of ways to be directly involved.” The lowest lift? Flores suggests buying stickers from INeedAnA.com, an awesome site that maintains up-to-date info about clinics, funds, pills, and local laws. “Stick them all over your town, wherever you go, to ensure that information is accessible for folks,” she says.
Lobby your congressperson to overturn the Comstock Act.
Named for the U.S. postal inspector who opposed “immoral materials” like anatomy textbooks, the 150-year-old Comstock Act prohibits sending “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials in the mail. The law is wildly broad and old-fashioned, yet it was the precedent used this spring in the abortion pill ruling. Ziegler thinks the law can and will be used by conservative politicians to create a nationwide abortion ban in the future and to keep any reproductive products from being distributed, period. “Now that they’re winning, they’re coming for more stuff,” she warns. “I’m here to tell you that it has been a lot worse and it could get a lot worse.”
Learn how to weaponize your voice.
“We have educational sessions training people on how to use medication abortion, so they can, in their own states, share that information with others and help guide people toward using mifepristone and misoprostol correctly,” says Adler. Her organization, GRR!, also works with the WOC-founded group We Testify, which helps amplify people’s abortion stories, to visit college campuses and teach students the power of sharing their own stories. “Recently, we were testifying on a bill in the legislature about extending abortion access, and a bunch of students testified for the first time in their lives, which was wonderful,” says Adler.
Ask Republican legislators to go on record about total bans and criminalization of abortion.
Again, access to abortion is a broadly popular position in the U.S., and even staunch pro-lifers don’t like the idea of banning it entirely or putting women in prison for getting the procedure, reminds Ziegler. Speak up in a local town hall, demand a response on social media, or ask when a candidate visits your college campus—it’s a cultural wedge that reminds folks what page most Americans are still on and demands that political leaders stay in line with that stance.
Support ballot initiatives and note state supreme court elections.
Last year, ballot items in Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan were shockingly efficient at protecting abortion access (supported by 59 percent, 52 percent, and 55.7 percent of voters, respectively), because—all together now—Americans love reproductive freedom! Elections for state justices and judges are just as important, as seen in the battle in Ohio just this month. “People want to look to the ’60s for inspiration? That’s exactly what they did while fighting the longer game to Roe,” says Ziegler. “They were clawing for every single victory in the states.”
Keep chatting with everyone in your life about abortion.
Don’t let the topic drop or let stigma and polarization develop. “We continue to make it a taboo by not talking about it,” says Flores. “The most powerful thing we can do is talk to our neighbors, our family, and our friends and have honest conversations about a health care procedure that they may or may not need at some point in their life.”
If you need an abortion, check out the resources at INeedAnA.com or AbortionFinder.org. You can also dive into the Guttmacher Institute’s resources for more detailed info on the policies in your state.