Gen Z activists in abortion debate poised to play pivotal role in 2024 election

Written by on April 9, 2024

Two 22-year-old college seniors, Hadley Duvall (left) and Morgan Reece (right) find themselves on opposite sides of the abortion debate. (ABC News)

(NEW YORK) — Gen Z activists on both sides of the abortion debate are hitting the ground trying to motivate their peers to the polls this November. Experts say their votes could be critical in this year’s election.

Hadley Duvall is a 22-year-old senior at Midway University in central Kentucky, leading pro-abortion rights advocacy on her conservative, Christian campus. Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles away, 22-year-old college senior Morgan Reece is organizing the anti-abortion movement on her mostly liberal campus at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“This is the greatest human rights atrocity to ever occur,” said Reece. “That we are allowing the slaughter of millions of children in the womb.”

“My favorite thing to say is I’m really just pro-minding your business,” Duvall said.

Both young women are a part of Generation Z, a group expected to make up more than 40 million potential voters, almost 17% of the American electorate.

“There is the capacity for young voters to have a real big impact in terms of who wins in these battleground states,” said Averi Harper, the deputy political director at ABC News. “We could see some young voters making the decisions that ultimately put someone in the White House.”

According to polling conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, voters who say abortion is the “most important issue” for them are disproportionately made up of the youngest voters, ages 18-29.

“What we do know about young voters, especially Gen Z voters, is that they are particularly engaged when it comes to social justice issues,” Harper said. “And so, that could be a galvanizing factor to get these folks to the polls.”

Reece is the president of her university’s anti-abortion group. She volunteers at pregnancy centers and works with Students for Life, a nonprofit anti-abortion advocacy organization. She runs events on campus where many students disagree with her views.

While Reece has devoted herself to the anti-abortion movement, she did not always have the same views.

“I used to be pro-choice, and I just thought that was like the normal stance to have,” Reece said. “I came across a graphic photo of an aborted baby that just broke my heart.”

Reece’s mission has been, in some ways, an uphill battle. Last year, the majority of Ohio voters voted to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution.

“It was a letdown for sure,” Reece said. “But much like all of our other losses, it’s not the end all be all. We did impact people through canvassing and tabling.”

Reece is not alone in her fight. Anti-abortion groups have been laying the groundwork for decades, led by activists like Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life.

“The bottom line is abortion is a bloody business. It’s abhorrent what we do to these children,” Hawkins said.

ABC’s Nightline has followed Hawkins’ quest for an abortion-free America for almost a decade. Her group, Students for Life, is now made up of thousands of young anti-abortion activists with more than 1,400 chapters on college campuses across the country.

However, since the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022, voters have overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion access across the country, including in some of the most conservative states in the nation.

Non-partisan polls have consistently shown that 62% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The number is even higher for younger Americans. Almost 73% of Americans ages 18 to 29 support legal abortion.

“When we’re having conversations with young people, we’re starting there of what sort of restrictions on abortion do they want and why,” Hawkins told Nightline.

While polls show there is broad support for some gestational limit, 93% all abortions occur in the first trimester. ABC News’ reporting on post-Roe America repeatedly shows that the new restrictions on abortion have endangered the lives of pregnant women in their second and third trimesters.

“We have a challenge where we have OB-GYNs in this country who are abortion advocates,” Hawkins said. “They’re putting their politics over safety and priority.”

A Kaiser Foundation study shows that most OB-GYNs say the overturning of Roe v. Wade has worsened their ability to manage pregnancy-related emergencies. Fifty-nine percent in states with gestational limits and 61% in states with abortion bans. A majority of them say they are “very or somewhat concerned” about their own legal risk when making decisions about patient care and whether or not an abortion is necessary.

“I would say if a woman’s life is at risk and her child has died, and that doctor doesn’t act for fear of losing his medical license, I think we have a problem there,” Hawkins said.

Meanwhile, Duvall says that abortion restrictions not only have the potential to impact adult women, but girls as well. Duvall gained wide recognition after appearing in an abortion rights ad speaking about her own childhood pregnancy. The ad was largely credited for helping Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, win reelection in 2023.

“To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable,” Duvall said in the campaign ad. “I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options.”

Duvall was sexually abused by her stepfather over the course of a decade, becoming pregnant at age 12. While her stepfather had planned for her to get an abortion, she ended up having a miscarriage. Duvall says her personal experience motivates her pro-abortion advocacy.

“I would have definitely chosen to get an abortion,” Duvall told Nightline. “But at that time, I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, Kentucky has put in place a near total ban on abortions, which can currently only be performed to save the life of the mother or prevent “disabling injury” with no exceptions for rape or incest.

“It took me a while to find my voice and now that I have, I intend to keep using it to advocate for girls and women who need it,” Duvall said.

While being a devout Christian, Duvall says her stance on abortion is not at odds with her faith.

“I want [people] to remember that their religion also says that only God judges,” Duvall said. “And that they don’t have to be the judge.”

The abortion battle is now largely being fought at the state level — with social media playing a role.

Earlier this year, Kentucky state Democrats introduced “Hadley’s Law,” a bill named in her honor. If passed, the law would add exceptions for rape, incest and pregnancies that are no longer viable and expand the current law to protect the health of the mother, not just her life.

“I feel like it helps to give a little bit of hope.” Duvall said. “It’s not where we want to be, but it’s just a small glimmer of hope that we can stick together as women.”

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