Teen girls are taking a stand on both sides of the abortion issue

YOUNG ACTIVISTS

October 22, 1990|By Jean Marbella

It could have been my little brother. It could have been me.

That's what the 16-year-old girl thinks when she hears about the 1.6 million abortions performed annually, or the more than 22 million since abortion was legalized.

Her mother was single both times when she got pregnant, and both times she considered abortions, said the Catonsville girl, who asked that her name not be used.

"I wouldn't have my brother if my mother had had an abortion. All her friends, and her family, were saying, 'Get an abortion,' " she said. "People make mistakes. I've learned from her mistakes. It's helped me out in giving me morals and stuff."

So now she's an anti-abortion activist, one of growing numbers of teen-agers who have jumped into the abortion controversy, either pro or con.

Unlike older activists in the pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion movements, teens have never known a time when abortion was illegal -- most were born after 1973, the year of the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision.

Yet, they have much at stake. Pregnant teens get abortions at a higher than average rate -- while 29 percent of all pregnancies are terminated by abortion, the rate is 42 percent for teen-age pregnancies. And, as anti-abortion forces seek to limit use of abortion, one way is by requiring parental consent or notification before teens can have the procedure done. The Senate voted Oct. 12 to require parental notification before abortions could be performed on girls under 18. The measure, part of an appropriations bill, is now in the House, which previously had rejected such a requirement.

"The parental consent thing is a touchy subject. I feel in most cases the child should have the right to tell or not to tell their parents," said Rachel Levy, 16, a City College student and member of Maryland Students for Choice. "It's her body."

Ms. Levy, who has been active in the abortion rights cause for about a year, said she became involved when she felt the threat from the other side.

"For a while, I was scared," said Ms. Levy. "I was seeing stuff on TV, hearing what different states were doing. I just started thinking that if I was ever in that position and pregnant, I personally should have the right to make the decision, not the government."

Students for Choice has members at about 30 high schools and colleges in the state, mainly the latter, said Chimene Schwach, coordinator of the group. More high school students aren't active in the abortion issue out of complacency as well as the usual teen problems of not having a car to get to meetings and rallies or not being able to go out on school nights, she said.

"They've grown up in times when they've always had this right [to abortion]. And, with parental consent, they think, 'Oh, well, we can always see the judge,' " said Ms. Schwach, 20, a former Johns Hopkins University student who became active in the movement as a high school student in Kansas City.

Teens who oppose abortion often become involved in the cause through their church or religious school. At Mount de Sales Academy, a Catholic girls' school in Catonsville, for example, students currently are having a "baby shower"; they're collecting gifts -- in a bassinet set up in chapel -- for pregnant teen-agers.

"It's human life," said Renee Russell, a 15-year-old student at the academy, who has attended anti-abortion marches. "People say victims of rape should be able to get abortions, but it's still human life. There's a reason they got pregnant -- God wanted it to happen.

"I would have the child," Renee said, "and if I couldn't bear to live with it because it was a rape, I would give it up for adoption."

Both sides have nationwide networks to recruit and involve young

people. These often are connected to established groups that have long fought the abortion fight, predominantly on the adult level.

Teens for Life, for example, is an offshoot of the National Right to Life group organized about five years ago. Estimates of membership range from the hundreds to the thousands.

"Teens can talk to other teens the way that adults can't," said Corrie Strand, a 16-year-old high school student in Rhinelander, Wis., and president of the group.

The group works mainly on "educating" teens, she said, leaving legislative matters, for the most part, to adults, although it does sponsor a congressional reception in Washington to coincide with the annual March for Life.

Teens who support abortion rights also have a national organization. Theirs is connected to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

Started about a year ago, the Campus Organizing Project has about 800 students who belong to various pro-abortion rights groups at their colleges or high schools, said Elissa McBride, NARAL campus organizer.

"There was a realization among younger women that this is a right that can be taken away," Ms. McBride said.

The project hopes to encourage voter registration among the young, she said. "It's a constituency that tends to vote less than others," she said.

Mary Shaffrey didn't wait until reaching voting age to become politically active -- at 15, the Notre Dame Preparatory School student has about five years of attending anti-abortion rallies and working for political candidates under her belt.

"This is a really important issue," said Ms. Shaffrey, who with a friend in Virginia is trying to organize a national anti-abortion group for teen-agers. "We don't want to let the adults take it over."

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