Why My Pro-Choice Relatives Are Not Reproductive Rights Activists

5 Nov

My 62-year-old aunt is very politically aware. During the weekend she stayed with me (the last weekend before the election) she checked Nate Silver’s blog eight times and crowed each time his predictor nudged close to Obama. In 2003 she marched to stop the Iraq war and in January 2009 flew out to DC to be a part of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

I should also mention she lives in Marin County, California, a San Francisco-adjacent suburb that is one of the most politically liberal enclaves in America.

And yet this weekend when I shared with her some of the reproductive rights work I had done, I realized that as politically plugged in as my aunt is, most of the issues we see in “abortion world” were new to her ears.

“What does breast cancer have to do with abortion,” she asked me after reading a “myth-busting” article on the repeated false claims of a link between abortion and breast cancer. She had never heard anyone claim there was, or that this was a repeatedly fought area for reproductive justice activists who work to ensure it’s not cited in materials given to women who seek abortions.

Then I decided to quiz my aunt about other abortion-related issues. Crisis Pregnancy Centers? She took a guess: were they medical centers for difficult pregnancies? TRAP laws? She hadn’t heard the term, but when I started describing the ways states (like my home state of Virginia) were using state regulations to force all the clinics to close I could see she got the idea. Then I asked her what she knew about clinic escorts and I saw she thought it was something that had happened in the 80s and maybe the 90s but wasn’t aware they are still out every Saturday in cities across the country.

To be fair to my aunt, those of us who work in these issues live and breathe this stuff every day. I quizzed her not because I thought she would know every detail but because I wanted to see how wide-spread some of the concepts are. It was clear that she’d heard about the issues that made the national news. She knew about transvaginal ultrasounds and the controversy this election season regarding all the GOP politicians who said wild things about rape.

I would bet all of my relatives (all ardent Pro-Choice voting Democrats) would have about the same level of knowledge. My father told me that the most animated my mother (age 67) got watching the Democratic National Convention was during Sandra Fluke’s speech.

Many reproductive rights activists have written about having family members who don’t support Choice. But in my family everyone supports legal abortion and wide access to contraception (this may have something to do with the fact we’re Jewish). If I probed a little deeper I’m sure I’d get some responses that would sound like an anti-Choice view, (I’m sure I’ve heard relatives something along the lines of “I support Choice but I think third-trimester abortions are wrong…”) but no one even in even my extended family would ever vote for any initiative, amendment, or candidate to limit abortion access. And if it was a family member who needed that third-trimester abortion all of them would be supportive.

My family is comprised of “undecided voters” who don’t follow politics. They might not all live and breathe the minutia, but most read articles about the election, watch the debates, and generally knew who they would vote for before the primary was over (or before it started). Millions of Pro-Choice voters are just like my family. They’re not “low-information” voters, but they maybe “low-information” when it comes to reproductive rights issues.

Only when reproductive rights raise to a certain level of notoriety do these type of voters become aware. What’s level does it have to rise to catch their attention? It means making the 6 pm news repeatedly, be discussed on the front page of the local paper, and it doesn’t hurt to also be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When they hear about anti-Choice idiocy, (such as the Todd Akin’s statement) it engages them. But for the wider populace to become aware of “news” it has to be utterly ubiquitous — repeated ad nausea for weeks on end by talk show hosts and newspaper columnists.

The silver lining to Anti-Choice politicians is this election is there was a never-ending stream of nationally embarrassing remarks that made the national news, which then trickled down to electorate. But after the election all my relatives (and millions like them) will go back to an inert political state on reproductive justice, only to come out for the next election in 2014.

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