As the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaches, a leading abortion-rights advocate is ready to hand over the reins to a new generation.
Nancy Keenan will step down early next year from her post as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the country’s most prominent and politically powerful abortion-rights groups.
“Part of my decision was that, at 40, you have the opportunity to engage a new generation, the Millennials, because they are so huge, and that the person at the helm of this organization could reflect that youth and a younger generation,” Keenan said in an interview. “Because now the responsibility lies with these next generations to be vigilant.”
Women born after 1973 have never had any question about whether abortion is legal, and that has caused it to diminish as a motivating political issue. People naturally get more fired up about changing the status quo than preserving it, and Keenan said she has seen that difference play out in the abortion-rights movement.
“This isn’t on the top of their list of issues that they’re concerned about right now,” she said. “And so we have to close that intensity gap, we have to make the case for the importance of the vigilance around this issue.”
Keenan is focused on the Millennial generation. Millennials outnumber Baby Boomers by the tens of millions, and will make up 40 percent of the voting population by 2020, she said.
“This Millennial generation ... they are pro-choice, but there is an intensity gap and there still has to be some connecting the personal to the political,” Keenan said.
About one in five pro-abortion-rights Millennials will vote primarily because of their stance on abortion, Keenan said. But it will be the motivating factor for two in five Millennials who oppose abortion rights.
“Whoever is able to connect the personal to the political with this generation, I think it’s kind of at a tipping point at 40 years — it could go the way, much like we’ve seen marriage equality being embraced by this generation,” she said. “We could see that they are there and will eventually act on those pro-choice values, but we have to close the intensity gap.”
Keenan joined NARAL in 2004, on the heels of a bruising election cycle for Democrats at every level. Democratic losses were largely blamed on social issues, including abortion rights as well as state ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage.
Keenan rejected that explanation, and tried to convince politicians to discuss abortion in terms of values. That’s what had worked for her as an elected politician in red-state Montana, she said, and could work more broadly as well.
“I was able to talk about this in a state like Montana and continue to be elected, because you have to talk about it in the sense of values that people share — the values of freedom, the values of privacy, that the government should not be into our business when it comes to these medical decisions,” Keenan said.
She helped convince Democratic candidates in 2006 and 2008 to focus on support for contraception and family planning, and she said those two election cycles are among her proudest accomplishments in her eight years at NARAL. 2006 saw the election of 44 new House members who supported abortion rights, and eight new senators, she said.
In 2008, all eyes were on Obama, and Keenan said she’s seen him adopt some of the language she and NARAL suggested for discussing the politically explosive issue of abortion.
With the Supreme Court battle settled — for now, anyway — she said the shift to a focus on access has reinforced the maxim that elections have consequences. In 21 sates, abortion-rights opponents control the governor’s mansion, the House and the Senate. That gives them sweeping power to impose restrictions such as mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods.
While congressional Republicans have focused on defunding Planned Parenthood and rolling back the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, the war over access to abortion is being fought largely in the states.
“It basically just elevates the issue that elections matter,” Keenan said of the debate shifting to access rather than legality. “What is paramount is that people understand the importance of elections and the importance of electing people who share the pro-choice values. That’s the bottom line.”
At the same time, she said, it’s important not to take Roe for granted. Ramping up her side’s enthusiasm is one thing, but Keenan has no illusions that abortion-rights opponents will weaken their resolve any time soon.
“They’re not going to go away. The intensity on that side will not go away,” she said.
“They come to this issue as young people who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they’re going to do everything in their power. That view might change as they grow older and reality hits and personal experience happens, but right now the personal intensity is pretty high on that side.”
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said he believes Roe was wrongly decided, and that the Constitution does not include an implied right to privacy — the rationale for protecting abortion. Obama will likely get to make at least one more Supreme Court appointment, but he probably won’t be able to shift the court significantly to the left.
“Barack Obama’s there for four years, but then what?” Keenan said.
She’s confident, at least, that Obama is an unwavering supporter of abortion rights. Keenan spoke at the Democratic conventions in 2008 and 2012, and though she said NARAL doesn’t hesitate to voice its disagreement with the administration, she’s not worried about Obama’s core beliefs.
“I’ve spent time with him, I’ve talked to him, and I unequivocally believe he understands what’s at stake and really does share the value that women in this country should be making those decisions, and not any politician,” Keenan said.
She plans to stay on at NARAL through the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — which happens to fall just a day after Inauguration Day. The organization hasn’t picked a successor yet.
But as for Keenan’s next steps, she said she’ll be fly-fishing in Montana and drinking Scotch.