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Health bill revives abortion issue for young women

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 file photo, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., talks to reporters after voting on Capitol Hill in Washington,.As the only known Democratic holdout in the U.S. Senate on a landmark health overhaul bill, Nebraska's Ben Nelson is being pressed not only by his Senate colleagues, but by the anti-abortion voters who got him to Washington. FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 file photo, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., talks to reporters after voting on Capitol Hill in Washington,.As the only known Democratic holdout in the U.S. Senate on a landmark health overhaul bill, Nebraska's Ben Nelson is being pressed not only by his Senate colleagues, but by the anti-abortion voters who got him to Washington. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg, File)
By Beth Fouhy
Associated Press Writer / December 19, 2009

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NEW YORK—At 21, Jelena Woehr describes herself as a feminist, focusing on issues such as domestic violence and improved career opportunities for women.

Yes, she also supports abortion rights. But that wasn't her emphasis until Congress began considering potential restrictions on insurance coveragfe for abortion. Now, she's joined many other young feminists in mobilizing to protect a right they thought had been settled long ago.

"People of my generation do not remember when abortion wasn't safe, legal and available and it's been a shock to think we might not have that right," said the Colorado resident, a part-time student and Internet content developer.

Other young activists, though, are sitting out the fight, as the latest skirmish over abortion has exposed a proxy battle over the issue and its place on the contemporary feminist agenda.

Among many younger feminists, the matter of abortion rights, so central to the women's movement of the 1970s, does not confer the urgency it once did. For them, abortion is now part of a "reproductive justice" portfolio that also includes access to birth control and improving health care for poor and minority women.

Newcomers to the women's movement, secure in the knowledge that abortion is legal, have embraced a broader range of goals under the feminist umbrella, from body image awareness and gay marriage to the raping and genocide in Darfur. They largely are eschewing the national women's groups and mass marches on Washington that their mothers eagerly may have joined, in favor of online social networks and local organizing.

Then there's the ambivalence around abortion that's crept into the debate, as medical care has been able to save extremely premature infants and ultrasounds now can reveal a fetal heartbeat at the earliest stages of gestation.

While most young feminists firmly believe in abortion rights, they're also confronting the mixed feelings many women have about a procedure older activists fought to make safe and legally available.

"Everyone, if they step back from the hotness of the political environment, can acknowledge that nobody really knows when life begins," Woehr said, adding many young feminists seek "a little more agreement that everyone wants fewer abortions."

Such expressions of ambivalence were less common during the 1970s, when supporters and opponents of abortion rights framed the matter in stark terms of legal versus illegal, choice versus life. The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling shifted the landscape, transforming what had been a pressing political issue into a personal decision for women facing unplanned pregnancies.

But if Roe was a victory for the women's movement, it also had many unintended consequences. Anti-abortion activists have won restrictions on the procedure in many states, and the issue has taken on less urgency for many younger feminists who believe it's established law.

"In the 1970s, we were arguing whether abortion should be legal or illegal and that was a much easier debate, because women were dying when it was illegal. Now, the debate is more like abortion for who? To what extent and under what circumstances?" said Amy Richards, co-author of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future."

Perhaps because abortion rights activism seemed frozen in an earlier generation, many younger feminists have come to identify it as the province of older, white, college-educated women. "When you single out abortion, you get a very specific demographic," Richards said.

That's a view shared by Jenna Covey of the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund. She said moving beyond abortion rights is essential to attracting a younger, more diverse range of activists to the cause.

"Abortion is no longer the No. 1 issue. It's about a spectrum of choices, not black-and-white single issues, that will re-engage women in the women's movement," Covey said.

There's no question that many have been galvanized into action by a proposal by Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan that the House passed last month as part of its health care overhaul. Whether they are willing to see the health overhaul go down over potential restrictions to abortion is another matter.

His amendment would prohibit private health care plans receiving federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life. In the Senate, a similar measure sponsored by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was voted down.

Nelson, whose vote is needed for passage, agreed late Friday night to support an overhaul after winning fresh concessions to limit the availability of abortions in insurance sold in newly created health exchanges. He had threatened to oppose the legislation without a compromise that addressed his concerns.

The deal also sets up a mechanism to segregate funds that would be used to pay for abortions from federal subsidy dollars flowing to health plans. Under Reid's bill, no health plan would be required to offer abortion coverage. In plans that do cover it, beneficiaries desiring the coverage would have to pay for it separately, and the plan would have to keep the funds in a separate account.

Abortion rights advocates have called efforts such as those by Stupak and Nelson the biggest threat to legal abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision, taking away private insurance coverage for the procedure from many women who have it now.

Hundreds of activists, many of them college-age women, attended a lobbying day in Washington this month to press members of Congress to remove abortion restrictions from the health care debate. Several national organizations, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Feminist Majority Foundation, have devoted considerable resources to enlisting younger women in the fight.

But Richards said that in her conversations with young feminists, she'd found few rallying who weren't already involved in the abortion-rights movement.

"Younger women who are very vocal around Stupak were always involved with those issues. It's galvanizing, but not bringing new people to the issue," Richards said, adding that many young activists are upset about the Stupak amendment because it targets lower-income women most likely to be receiving federal health care subsidies, not because of the abortion restrictions per se.

That's not the case for Jenny Ye, a Harvard freshman who traveled to Washington for the lobbying day.

Ye, who grew up in New York's Chinatown, said she hadn't thought much about abortion until it became part of the health care debate. She's now trying to motivate classmates to fight the Stupak amendment but says she's meeting resistance, even among young feminists.

"Many people feel like this is a compromise we have to make to get health care reform, even pro-choice students who are afraid this could cost a lot of people health care," Ye said, acknowledging that abortion is a "sensitive, touchy" issue for many young women, even those who support abortion rights.

Indeed, the fact that abortion has gravitated from the political to the personal sphere for most women has made it a challenge for organizers.

Jen Nedeau, a 25-year-old production assistant at Air America in New York, is working to block the Stupak amendment, but acknowledges she hasn't discussed it with many people who are close to her.

"The concept of abortion is so challenging for public discourse," she said. "It's incredibly personal for most people."