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The Key to the Youth Vote: Birth Control and the 2012 Election

Birth control access is a force multiplier for young people.

Beginning August 1, 2012, for the first time in the history of this country, access to birth control without a co-pay will be a reality for millions of young people across the country. To underscore this moment—or fail to maximize its transformative potential—would be a grave mistake.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the Millennial generation will now benefit from a provision in the law that fundamentally changes the landscape of sexual and reproductive health in this country. With the fall semester quickly approaching, college students will no longer face the difficult choice between paying for books, and affording their birth control.

Tracey Hickey, a Choice USA activist and student leader at the University of Pittsburgh, elaborates on the cost-benefit of birth control coverage for college women,

I don’t think a woman should have to decide whether to keep taking a birth control pill that gives her terrible side effects, because it’s the only brand whose co-pay she can afford. I don’t think a woman should have to decide whether to enroll in a birth control study and rely on a pill that isn’t on the market yet, not because the compensation is great, but because it’s the only way to get contraception for free. Starting now, with co-pay-free birth control under the Affordable Care Act, college women don’t have to make those tough decisions anymore. Now that we can cross “how do I afford my birth control” off our lists of things to worry about, college women can focus on making the kinds of decisions we want to make, the ones that empower us to choose what we want from our lives.

Beyond the material benefits of the contraceptive mandate, there is also a unique political trajectory to be seized upon. You see, access to birth control is about more than just health care.

Birth control access is a force multiplier for young people.

Access to a wide range of affordable birth control options gives young people economic power, and it enables us to exercise agency over our own bodies. That’s a powerful thing. So powerful, in fact, that it scares the shit out of the policy makers and power structures that rely on us being alienated from our own bodies. Because when young people are subjugated and disenfranchised, systems of power thrive.

So if our electoral candidates expect their one-dimensional campaign narratives about the economy to resonate with young people, they better start talking about birth control. If political organizations and action committees want young people to mobilize and vote in this election, they better start talking about birth control.

Make no mistake about it: this is a unique political moment. It’s a political moment that carries with it the potential of politicizing our generation in ways previously unimaginable; the potential to challenge entrenched systems and transform oppressive paradigms.

But it isn’t sufficient enough to celebrate this moment as a victory for young people. We have to celebrate this as a victory for young people, won by young people. The contraceptive mandate would not be here today if it weren’t for the record number of young activists who demanded that birth control be included as preventive health care. This provision wouldn’t be here today had it not been for the youth-led and youth-focused organizations that made strategic investments in young activists.

It’s time to double down on those investments.

If the ongoing controversy over birth control coverage has taught us anything, it’s that young people are a force to be reckoned with, and we get active – we get politically engaged – when our issues take center stage. Over the past year and a half, the Millennial generation moved from a climate of low voter turnout in the 2010 Midterm election, to a moment of incredible civic engagement. And we did it in the face of unwarranted accusations that we’re a generation of apathy. We forced hundreds of sponsors to drop Rush Limbaugh after his vicious attacks against young American women. We effectively prevented the doubling of student loan rates. We stopped Virginia from passing an extremist trans-vaginal ultrasound bill. And we educated thousands of new young people about the benefits provided in the Affordable Care Act.

Young people have never been apathetic.

At times, we may have been skeptical. And in the 2010 Midterm election, some of us opted out of the voting process. But if that has become our litmus test for evaluating the political engagement of this generation, I’m afraid we’re missing the boat entirely. Young people aren’t going to vote in this election because a bunch of out-of-touch politicians and political parties tell us to. We’re going to vote because we understand that the issues that matter most to our well-being hang in the balance.

There is more at stake for young people in 2012 than ever before and we have to seize this political moment for what it is: an opportunity to strategically invest in young people. We have to give them the information and resources they need to take back our political system from the institutions and power structures that benefit from our disenfranchisement.

As a country, we need to ditch the tired stereotypes that young people are passive and disillusioned. We need to stop scapegoating blame and take responsibility for the fact that the political narrative we continue to rely on leaves young people in the periphery.

With less than one hundred days left before the election, we need to prioritize a different narrative. We need to elevate a storyline that celebrates the benefits of the birth control mandate and politicizes the emerging threats to take these benefits away from us.

At this very moment, anti-choice forces are working tirelessly to roll back access to sexual and reproductive rights. Nine states have considered legislation or ballot measures that would roll back birth control coverage. Hercules Industries was successful (for now) in exempting itself from the contraceptive mandate, setting a dangerous precedent that a corporation has the right to selectively deny its employees access to imperative, life-saving health care services. In the U.S. House of Representatives, an appropriations measure is pending that could effectively eliminate the implementation and enforcement of the birth control provision. And in 2012, voter suppression efforts stand a chance of disenfranchising five million voters, hitting young people the hardest.

That’s the political moment we’re living in.

The good news is that the power of the youth vote is boundless, and if we play our cards right, we can make the 2012 election a referendum on sexual and reproductive freedom. If we play our cards right, we can tap into the most powerful electoral force in the country and build the systemic and cultural change our generation desperately needs and deserves.

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