When 16-year-old Brennan Eberwine read the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last week that could put an end to legal abortion, the high school junior in Louisville, Kentucky, did something that’s been a part of his life since eighth grade.
“I have a deep pit in my stomach over this,” Eberwine, one of hundreds of Louisville students who walked out of three area high schools last Thursday, told me. “What it opens up is horrifying,” he said of the draft ruling. “It weighs you down, but if you let that weight crush you, it’s over.”
Eberwine is a junior at duPont Manual High School, a magnet public school that happens to be the alma mater of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said a national ban on abortion might be “possible” if Roe were overturned. In Kentucky, the decision would activate a trigger law and put an immediate end to abortions, a fact not lost on Eberwine or Manual student Brianna Woods, his partner in protest.
“When I heard I was so stressed out,” said Woods, 17, who carried a sign saying “Our bodies, our minds, our rights” at last week’s walkout. “A haunting feeling overcame me. I didn’t feel safe in my state anymore.”
Both Manual students have a history of confronting authority: They appeared before the Kentucky state legislature in February to testify against a bill on history instruction that the students said would whitewash the past, deny free speech and erase marginalized people. They are among young people in red states across the U.S. who are speaking out against bills limiting what they can read and discuss in class, on topics such as systemic racism and gender identity.
Now, they find themselves up against a potentially historic Supreme Court ruling that could end access to abortion in many states. They are coming of age at a time of deep and bitter ideological divides, their lives already shaped by pandemic isolation and confrontations over mask mandates. Many are also involved in the Black Lives Matter-led racial justice movement prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police in 2020.
“Being a teenager is hard enough, but in the current political climate, it’s a nightmare,” Angela Cooper, communications director of the ACLU of Kentucky, told me. The ACLU sent a letter to Kentucky school officials last week reminding them that students can participate in protests or walkouts amid the national conversation on abortion access “without risk of disciplinary action or interference from local law enforcement.”
Nationally, students are fighting book bans with “banned-book clubs” and challenging adults whom the young people see as trying to dictate what they can read, learn and do with their bodies.
“All of these circumstances give me more motivation to make a change, and do everything I can to preserve the future for those who come after me.”
Brianna Woods, student, duPont Manual High School, Kentucky
Of course, opponents of the new laws and bans aren’t the only ones speaking out. Several of the Kentucky students I spoke with told me they have friends who are apolitical or who favor an abortion ban. Some belong to No Left Turn Kentucky, a local chapter of the conservative No Left Turn in Education. The group has mobilized people to push back against what it calls “the radical indoctrination and injection of political agendas in K-12 education.”
Student members of that group testified during the same Kentucky Senate education committee hearing in February that Woods and Eberwine attended, arguing in favor of the limitations. In April, Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, vetoed the bill and called it a step backward, although a majority vote by both Houses could override it.
Plenty of students also declined to join last week’s walkout over Roe at three Louisville high schools, including Manual, McConnell’s alma mater, where the senator began his political career as president of the student council. Eberwine says McConnell was booed during a recent visit. “I would say most of the Manual community resents him being permanently attached to our school’s reputation,” he said.
McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The senator has also run afoul of the University of Louisville, his college alma mater, after rejecting the idea that the year enslaved people arrived in America – 1619 – was one of the most important points in American history.
In Kentucky, other students I spoke with described becoming activists long before the Roe leak: Minhal Nazeer, 16, said she wanted to protest and join civics organizations after taking a government and politics class.
“The more I learned, the more I’m exposed to, the more I realize how much work is needed to make change,” said Nazeer, a sophomore at Kentucky Country Day School, a private school in Louisville. Nazeer said she dislikes seeing students left out of conversations in which politicians are dictating everything from wearing masks in school to what books are in libraries. “And now, it’s our bodies,” Nazeer told me. “It kind of proves how much trust we put in adults who know very little about our lives.”
A December survey of more than 10,000 Kentucky students by the Kentucky Student Voice Team found that many want more discussion of race, not less. Nearly half think their schools needs to do more to confront racism, while 31 percent of students of color said they don’t have a chance to talk about their own experiences with race in their classrooms. The student-led group came up with a number of recommendations to improve school climates, including establishing feedback mechanisms for students to report issues around racial bias and training teachers to be culturally competent.
In Georgia, Alex Ames, a student at Georgia Tech who has been an activist since high school, said that fighting back is the only way she can move forward. For her, the Roe v. Wade leak followed a tough few weeks: Georgia lawmakers passed a bill she’d been fighting that excludes trans athletes from competing on sports teams. It’s now been signed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.
“We can show up and speak out and march and hold press conferences, but they can pass voter suppression laws and block public hearings or cancel them so we can’t speak,” said Ames, who leads the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. “Democracy feels untouchable to ordinary Georgians and Americans.”
Yet the option of moving to a more liberal state is the last thing on her mind. “It’s frustrating, but I think it would be a mistake to leave,” said Ames. “The reason I’m doing it is because we love our friends and our family. Leaving behind the people you are fighting for in the first place doesn’t feel like an option.”
Eberwine agreed that leaving is akin to giving up. “It’s hard in a red state where it feels like your opinion isn’t taken seriously,” he said. “But advocating for yourself is the best thing I can do in this state. I have lived in Kentucky my entire life and I deeply care about the state and the people who live here. The legislature does not represent me or a lot of Kentuckians that it hurts the most.”
And as upset as she is about Roe and all the other issues that weigh her down in Kentucky, Brianna Woods says she’s only just begun to fight. “All of these circumstances give me more motivation to make a change, and do everything I can to preserve the future for those who come after me,” Woods said. “Maybe in a few decades, we won’t remember that Mitch McConnell graduated from Manual, but we will remember the students who went on to make a positive change.”