These teens always had abortion rights. Now they face a ‘post-Roe’ world

Anna Geisler at home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.  (Photo by Emily Elconin for The Washington Post)
Anna Geisler at home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Emily Elconin for The Washington Post)

Anna Geisler, 16, was about to walk outside and drive to her summer job waitressing at a Michigan cafe when her mother approached. Her face told Anna something was wrong.

“Did you hear the news about Roe,” her mother said — and just like that, Anna learned she had lost her constitutional right to an abortion. Tears welled. A new and nervous driver, Anna suddenly doubted her ability to make it safely into work.

“Just drive,” she told herself, even as anxiety hardened her chest. “Focus. Get to work.”

The teenager was one of millions of Americans shocked by the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling. For some, the ruling signaled victory after years of fighting against abortion; others were left lamenting the loss of what they view as a fundamental right.

The end of Roe v. Wade, which had protected abortion rights for almost exactly 50 years, means at least 52 percent of American women of childbearing age will face new restrictions on their ability to have abortions, The Washington Post reported.

The decision has a particular resonance for members of Generation Z, defined as those born after 1996. Many teenagers, who have never known life without Roe, grew up viewing the case as a long-settled issue, whether it provoked joy or despair. Now, members of that generation are coming of age with fewer reproductive rights than their mothers had.

Gen Z is influencing the abortion debate — from TikTok

How will the decision reshape life for what cable pundits are already calling “the post-Roe generation?” The Washington Post sought submissions from teenagers across the country to gauge their thoughts and feelings about the ruling: how and whether it changed the way they see themselves, their futures and America.

Here are the stories of four of them.

‘God has a plan’

The first time Joelle Peña, 18, stood outside an abortion clinic, she was scared.

A devout Christian raised by a conservative family in Miami, Joelle believes abortion is murder and a sin in God’s eyes. She had watched YouTube videos posted by Christians who waited outside clinics, seeking to deter pregnant people from entering. She was intimidated by the idea of confronting other women.

But last year, inspired by a speech from a pastor, she decided to try it. One November morning, she and six friends piled into a car, Joelle gripping a sign lent to her by the advocacy group End Abortion Now. The sign’s front side, which she held toward the clinic doors, read, “We Will Adopt Your Baby.” The back side, which Joelle kept facing the road, declared, “Babies Are Murdered Here.”

That first day was hard. Many patients — parents, as she called them — refused to speak. But there was less conflict than she had feared, just a lot of distressed people crying. Plus, some passing drivers gave her supportive honks and thumbs ups.

Listen to Joelle Peña

Joelle kept at it. She developed a routine, visiting clinics on Saturday mornings. When she could, she’d visit after school, too. The clinic she visited most often was one close to her high school, sited off a busy road next to a McDonald’s.

Joelle estimates she has spoken with more than 1,000 women across roughly 100 days of what she calls “abortion ministry.” Recently, she joined the antiabortion group Love Life, where she is now spending the summer as an intern.

She always opens clinic conversations the same way: “I am Joelle. I’m a Christian missionary. I’m here because I’m trying to help abortion-minded parents.”

If the person seems willing to talk, she asks if they are pregnant and if they plan to keep the baby. If they say no, she asks why — “usually it’s because of resources or because they feel unprepared,” Joelle said.

“I tell them they can raise this child,” Joelle said. “I say, ‘We’re partnered with over 40 churches that want to walk alongside you. You’re not alone; God has a plan for this.’ ” Sometimes she shows people pictures of baby showers.

Joelle said 16 people have decided, after speaking with her, to keep their babies. She calls these women “saves.” Once, on an especially memorable Saturday, Joelle and her friends “made three saves in one day — that was incredible!”

Sometimes people at clinics tell her to go away or shut up, because she’s “just a kid.” Students at Joelle’s liberal private high school are also critical. When she shared pictures of her activism on Instagram, one girl wrote, “Drop out like wtf is this.” Another commented: “girl. why r u the way that u are,” and another added, “ur going to hell.”

But Joelle has never doubted she is right. Sometimes she thinks of her twin brother, Nathanael, who died in the womb one day before they were born. She is confident she will see Nathanael again in heaven.

“My brother was an actual person with a name who passed away,” Joelle said. “There’s no distinction between my brother at 36 weeks and another baby at like 12. … Babies inside the womb are children and image-bearers of God.”

Joelle was in her bedroom when Roe fell, scrolling through Instagram. Elated, she gave thanks to God and ran to tell her father.

Then she read more posts warning Christians that their work wasn’t done. Some called for a national law banning abortion. Joelle recalled that Florida prohibits the procedure after 15 weeks in its antiabortion law, which she thinks is nowhere near adequate.

Happiness gave way to a fiery feeling.

Roe being overturned,” Joelle said, “is just the beginning step to a long journey.”

‘Now I don’t have control of my body’

Irene Vera, 15, was sitting in biology class this spring at her D.C. high school when she overheard two students whispering about Roe v. Wade.

Irene had always viewed the constitutional right to abortion as graven in stone, immutable. But the students were saying something about a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe.

Irene reeled. She felt several things at once: Disbelief that Roe could fall after so many decades. Anger that “men in power” would try to make such a personal decision for women. Worry for the future, because she knew abortions wouldn’t stop, just grow more dangerous.

But most of all she felt robbed: “Now I don’t have control of my body,” she said, words she repeated in her head for the rest of biology — and for weeks to come.

Listen to Irene Vera

Before that May day, Irene hadn’t thought much about abortion. Since then, she has thought about little else. Irene likes to take walks to order her mind, and sometimes she slips onto the roof of her house at night, staring up at the stars.

Alone, she for the first time seriously considered taking advantage of her international citizenship — one of her parents is Spanish — to move to Europe. In Spain, she knew, abortion is legal upon request up to 14 weeks and permitted afterward if there are risks to the pregnant person’s health or fetal defects.

It didn’t matter that abortion is legal in D.C. and likely to remain so. Roe’s stand or fall, Irene realized, meant something more to her.

“It meant that I have a right to my body, that I have control of my life and I have control of my future,” she said.

Roe fell for good while Irene was sitting in humanities class. Another student ran in, shouting, “Guys, it got overturned. I’m going to go to the White House or the Supreme Court and protest after school. Would anybody like to join?”

Irene wanted to go. But it was her last day of school, and she was supposed to catch a flight to Spain that afternoon, to spend the summer with relatives there.

Before she left, she helped other students prepare posters. “GET OFF MY Body,” she wrote on a piece of paper, coloring the “OFF” in electric blue. “Land of the Free?” she wrote in orange marker on another. She taped both posters to plastic coat hangers, symbols of unsafe “backstreet” abortions.

As her classmates lined up outside the White House, Irene began her 15-hour trip. She spent the first hour silent, fixating on what had happened. She kept asking herself why. Later, after grimacing through a bad Ashton Kutcher movie, she managed some fitful sleep.

When Irene debarked in Spain, she was surprised by a sudden sense of freedom. Of escape. Away from America, her body felt like hers again.

In that moment she decided: As soon as she could, she would move to Europe.

‘Don’t let this go too far’

A few months ago, a 16-year-old in Louisiana raised the issue of abortion with a family member for the first time.

The teen spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his family’s privacy and for fear that sharing his views on abortion will lead to harassment. After reading widely on the subject, he has come to believe abortion should be granted in cases of rape or incest, or if the pregnant person’s life is in danger. But he is less sympathetic to people who seek abortions “if they were, I don’t want to say, irresponsible” — and he does not think abortion is the answer in cases where people lack the resources to raise a child.

“To me, I think it’s more important that the kid at least has a chance to live,” said the teen, who is Catholic. “Even if they go into foster care, it may not be the best environment, but they’ll have a chance.”

He and a family member, a woman, started chatting about abortion after news emerged in May that the Supreme Court would probably overturn Roe v. Wade. The teen said Roe’s fall would be a good thing, because there is no explicit constitutional protection for abortion. “It’s better left up to states,” he said.

The teen was surprised to learn his family member disagreed; his slice of Louisiana — and much of his family — is conservative, although he identifies as an independent. But he was more surprised by her second admission.

“She told me she had had an abortion,” he said. “She already had a daughter. She didn’t want to have a second child at that time.”

The teen tried to organize his thoughts, but it was complicated. “I know she wouldn’t have been able to support another baby most likely, so that’s tricky. But then there’s still the part of me that’s like, ‘That baby should have been given a chance.’ ”

He didn’t reach any firm conclusions. He and the family member ended their discussion on good terms.

The teen was playing Minecraft with a friend when the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. He learned the news from Twitter.

The teen’s friend said he didn’t care, but the teen was in shock, for a time unable to give attention to anything else. In the first hours, part of him felt pleased. But as he proceeded through his day — an otherwise regular summer day, filled with video games and yard work — misgivings began to swirl.

He read about how, in Louisiana, Roe’s overturn has triggered a law that bans abortions totally, including in situations in which the teen thinks the procedure should be allowed. He scanned Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion suggesting that the Supreme Court should also overturn rulings that legalized same-sex marriages and the right to contraception. That made the teen shudder.

Late in the day, he remembered his female relative who’d had an abortion. He thought about how, if she were to become pregnant now, she would have to have the baby.

When he knelt by his bed to pray that night, he added a special message.

“Thank you,” the teen said to God. “But don’t let this go too far.”

‘What do we do’

In Michigan, Anna drove to work without incident. She pulled into the parking lot and sat for five minutes, collecting herself, before going inside.

As she waited tables, her phone buzzed every few seconds with notifications. Anna is vice president of a feminism club at her high school; its members were reaching out for reassurance, asking what came next. She didn’t know what to say.

Listen to Anna Geisler

“Like what do we do,” Anna texted her best friend, Chloe. “I’m trying not to cry at work.”

“My stomach hurts,” Chloe replied.

“I feel like i need to mourn,” Anna wrote. “But like how.”

“I wish I could be more support,” Chloe wrote. “I have more questions than answers.”

Anna did, too. A politically active and ambitious teen, she was determined to fight back — but she wasn’t sure how, not yet.

After stumbling through the rest of her shift, she joined an evening march for abortion rights. Soon, she was researching Michigan’s position on abortion, discovering the state has a 1931 law forbidding almost all abortions, although the future of that law — for now temporarily blocked — depends on a fierce political and legal fight being waged in part by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Anna made mental plans to lobby legislators this fall, and “vote like hell in 2024,” and felt better.

But as she lay in bed that night, darker thoughts returned.

“I am a woman of 16, who just came of age,” Anna said. “And when I fell asleep that night, I knew I had less rights than my mom had growing up.”

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the year in which Michigan passed a law forbidding almost all abortions. It was 1931, not 1849. The article has been corrected.

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