Generation Bieber and the war on choice

Justin Bieber's insulting comments about abortion and rape speak volumes about the right's success in spreading its anti-choice views, writes Madeline Burrows.

Justin Bieber performing in Philadelphia (Stephen Eckert)Justin Bieber performing in Philadelphia (Stephen Eckert)

WHAT DOES Justin Bieber have to tell us about the abortion debate? Not much, you'd think. But in its March issue, Rolling Stone magazine asked the teenage pop star what he thought about abortion, and his insensitive response--and the lack of criticism he got for it--exemplifies both how much ground the pro-choice movement has lost and the need to rebuild an unapologetic abortion rights movement.

According to Bieber, abortion is killing a baby, and rape "happens for a reason." Sound familiar? That's because these are right-wing talking points their assault on a women's rights.

Anti-choice groups were quick to congratulate Bieber. Lila Rose of Live Action--the group behind the recent smear campaign against Planned Parenthood--said that she hopes Bieber's young female fan base will provide a target audience for anti-choice messaging. "We encourage all of his fans to spread the pro-life Bieber Fever," Rose said. "[T]eenage girls make up nearly a third of Live Action's 50,000 Facebook fans."

Mike Huckabee called Bieber's comments "refreshing...For the first time since 1973, more people now identify as pro-life than not. And the reason those numbers have changed is because of younger people."

Of course, we should be outraged any time a public figure--especially one as famous and popular among Tween girls as Justin Bieber--speaks so ignorantly about a woman's right to choose. But Bieber's clear lack of familiarity with any pro-choice arguments speaks to problems that are more important and far-reaching than what he said.

Unfortunately, Huckabee's assertion that more young people identify as "pro-life" than ever before is correct. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that 47 percent of Americans support a "pro-life" view, while 45 percent consider themselves pro-choice. The sharpest decrease in pro-choice sentiment is among young people aged 18 to 29. This is in keeping with a trend over the last 10 years, where pro-choice sentiment has declined nationally.

Justin Bieber--as powerful as his publicity team would like to think he is--was not the cause of this shift in public opinion, nor is his commentary on abortion and rape the driving force shaping anti-choice rhetoric today.

Rather, Bieber's offhanded comments speak volumes about the way the right wing has been able to dominate and shape the discourse around abortion. In turn, they have influenced a generation of young people who are growing up as the right to choose is being ideologically and legislatively rolled back.

The latest anti-choice attacks are more draconian than ever. Bills have been taken up in South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska that are aimed at redefining the meaning of "justifiable homicide" to include the murder of abortion providers. In Ohio, anti-choice groups are attempting to have a fetus to "testify" against pro-choice legislation. In South Dakota, women are now required to wait 72 hours before having an abortion, and to seek out "counseling" through a Crisis Pregnancy Center.

As it is, abortion is technically legal, but widely inaccessible and unaffordable. In 2005, 87 percent of U.S. counties had no abortion provider. One-third of American women live in these counties, which means they have to travel outside their county to obtain an abortion. Those statistics will undoubtedly grow with the onset of additional restrictions.

Meanwhile, comprehensive sex education continues to be rare in public and private education in the U.S. The Guttmacher Institute's 2011 study on sex education reports that in 2010 alone, the federal government spent $50 million on state-run abstinence-until-marriage programs. Thirty-two states require sex education programs to include abstinence, and only 13 states require that sex education programs be factual and accurate. Few programs deal honestly with abortion or treat sex and unplanned pregnancy as a reality of young people's lives.

So the same generation that has grown up without a fighting women's movement will be the one most affected by the recent attack on choice. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 18 percent of U.S. women who obtain abortions are teenagers. Women in their 20s obtain more than half of all abortions in the U.S.

And what about Bieber's statement against abortion even in the case of rape because "everything happens for a reason"? An original clause of the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act"--Republican legislation introduced in the U.S. House this year--sought to redefine rape as "forcible rape," as if some kinds of rape are consensual.

Bieber's off-handed comments about rape and abortion represent the outcome of the right's decades-long assault on women's rights and the resulting shift in public opinion on this issue.

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MAINSTREAM CRITICISMS of Bieber's interview mainly dismissed his comments because of his age. On The View, Barbara Walters said, "You can look at it as something that's coming out of a young mind that is still growing." But many elected officials--legal adults with far more power to legislate away a woman's right to choose--share Bieber's perspective.

Bieber's opinions are shaped by a political context in which the pro-choice movement has lost tremendous ground on the question of abortion. He--and millions of other young people like him--will not inevitably become pro-choice with age. If we want to transform the abortion debate, we need to start by learning the history of how a fighting women's movement defined a pro-choice atmosphere, and how that ground was lost over the ensuing decades.

Support for choice in 1973--the year that the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the U.S.--stood at around 75 percent, according to polls. Opinion on abortion, as well as a whole range of issues related to women's rights, was shaped by the women's liberation movement of the 1970s and its slogan "Free abortion, on demand, no apologies."

Who is to blame for the rightward shift on the question of abortion--especially in a context where Americans are shifting to the left on most other issues? A look at the aggressive strategies of the anti-choice movement versus the concessionary ones of pro-choice organizations over the last few decades offers some insight.

During the 1990s, the major pro-choice organizations threw their support behind professedly pro-choice Democratic Party candidates like Bill Clinton, deemphasizing protest and unapologetic political demands. In 1989, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) issued a "talking points" memo to staff members instructing them not to use phrases like "a woman's body is her own to control," and to instead portray abortion as a "privacy issue." Between 1992 and 2004, there were no major pro-choice rallies in the United States.

The result? Bill Clinton was sitting in the White House when the biggest attacks on women's access to abortion to that point--including mandatory parental consent laws and enforced anti-abortion "counseling" in scores of states--were taking place. And the concessions made by Democrats during the Clinton years opened the way for the current Republican-led attack on abortion rights.

In the years that the pro-choice movement was on the retreat, anti-choice organizations were in the streets, organizing walks "for life" and pickets outside abortion clinics. The National Abortion Federation reported 16 death threats to abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada in 2009 alone, along with over 40 bombings and 175 cases of arson since 1977.

These days, it is impossible to go into a Planned Parenthood without first being verbally assaulted by anti-choice protesters--often men--telling women that they are committing murder for exercising their right to control their own bodies.

The right gained tremendous ideological ground in this period because, unlike the pro-choice movement, they refused to cede ground or make compromises. And yet, many pro-choice organizations still maintain the need to meet the anti-abortion movement in the middle.

Planned Parenthood recently ran an online video that begins: "Even anti-choice representatives speak out against the House's war on women's health care." The video then shows clips from testimony by anti-choice politicians Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).

Among other things, these two congressmen rely on the myth that women's health and abortion access are two separate issues. It's no surprise, then, that Justin Bieber and many others like him see no contradiction between supporting universal health care and opposing abortion, as he did in his Rolling Stone interview.

Abortion is a basic medical procedure and a staple of women's health care. Without abortion access, women lack comprehensive health services. In Bieber's native Canada, abortion is a medical procedure covered by the Canada Health Act. This means Canadian women do not have to pay for abortion, though access varies widely depending on region.

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GIVEN THE right's aggressive and well-funded strategy over the past several decades, alongside the pro-choice movement's passivity, it is no surprise that thousands of young people like Justin Bieber who were born in the years after the 1980s consider themselves "pro-life."

The anti-choice right-wing is clearly trying to attract young people with an array of new youth-led organizations and right-wing social media. CNN recently ran a special called "Right on the Edge," which highlighted young right-wing "activists" like Lila Rose and her anti-choice organization Live Action. Rose--with CNN's blessing--is portrayed as an embattled activist in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.--she even cites his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as inspiration for her work.

Live Action's blog features photos of young anti-choice activists at a rally holding signs that say, "Women deserve better than abortion." Calling itself "a youth-led movement dedicated to building a culture of life and ending abortion," Live Action organizes rallies and urges young people to get involved and "grow the movement."

But Live Action does not speak for the majority of teenagers in the U.S. Teenagers are not mindless drones without opinions or agency of their own. Hundreds of students walked out of high schools across Wisconsin in February and March to protest Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union law. Undocumented students led the sit-ins in congressional offices last year against Arizona's racial profiling law SB 1070.

And despite the right-wing shift in abortion rhetoric and legislation, thousands of young people still consider themselves pro-choice. In fact, in the past several months, the attack on abortion rights has been met by an inspiring outpouring of activism from the left--in large part led by young women and men who refuse to go back to the reality of their parents' generation, when abortion was a crime and thousands of women died from unsafe abortions every year.

We need to rebuild an unapologetic abortion rights movement that can educate this generation about what life was like before Roe v. Wade, and explain how legal--and funded--access to abortion saves millions of women's lives ever year.

In the meantime, perhaps we should remind Bieber what one of his idols, Tupac Shakur, rapped about abortion: "And since a man can't make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one." This is the kind of unapologetic stance our movement needs to take.

We can't let the right wing obscure the voices of thousands of young women who will face unintended pregnancies this year. When pro-choice activists pour into the streets and demand no more concessions to a woman's right to choose, Bieber and thousands of teenagers like him will be singing a different tune.