Nancy Keenan is worried. The current president of NARAL, Keenan detects a loss of fervor in support of abortion rights among younger women, and she talked openly to Newsweek about her concern. Are we witnessing a major shift of momentum on the issue of abortion?
Keenan’s group is officially known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. It was founded in 1969 as the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws and NARAL is the oldest abortion-rights advocacy group in the United States. The group may have changed its name after Roe v. Wade, but it hasn’t changed its agenda — NARAL is committed to an all-out defense of abortion rights.
All this comes to light in a report by Sarah Kliff of Newsweek. In the magazine’s April 26, 2010 edition Kliff outlines the challenges facing the abortion rights movement. In the aftermath of the health care reform signed into law by President Obama, abortion rights groups are licking their political wounds. As Kliff explains, the movement woke up to the fact that a significant number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate are pro-life. Even as the executive order signed by President Obama offered some limited and tenuous protections for the unborn, the pro-abortion movement was far more alarmed by the fact that the House of Representatives had earlier passed the so-called “Stupak amendment” that would have represented the most significant modification of abortion law since Roe v. Wade.
Kliff argues that the final form of the health care reform legislation was “more than a psychological setback” for the pro-abortion movement. Since the law requires a separate check for any abortion coverage in qualified insurance plans, the structure “could well prove so onerous that insurers drop abortion coverage altogether.”
That remains to be seen, of course. Nevertheless, Keenan is worried. The leadership in the abortion rights movement is getting older. She referred to her generation of abortion rights advocates as the “postmenopausal militia.” Even as this generation leads the major abortion rights groups today, they look behind them and see far less passion for abortion rights among younger women.
Nancy Keenan told Sarah Kliff that she “just doesn’t see a passion among the post-Roe generation.” In a fascinating twist, Kliff adds, “at least on her side.”
Kliff then writes this:
This past January, when Keenan’s train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, she was greeted by a swarm of anti-abortion-rights activists. It was the 37th annual March for Life, organized every year on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe. “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had about 1,300 attendees.
“There are so many of them, and they are so young.” That is one of the most encouraging sentences to be found in any recent coverage of the abortion issue. The president of NARAL saw the March for Life crowd and noted its numbers and its youth. The sight clearly gave Nancy Keenan pause.
Beyond that observation, NARAL has sobering research data to consider. Their own research suggests a significant “intensity gap” between older and younger women in America. Even as surveys indicate that Americans remain deeply divided over the question of abortion, the numbers are only part of the story. The other part of the political equation is passion and intensity, and on these factors the pro-life movement scores well above the abortion rights movement, especially among younger voters.
NARAL’s own research indicates that the younger generation of women — the millennials — do not “view abortion as an imperiled right in need of defenders.”
Then there is the ultrasound. Kate Michelman, former NARAL president, acknowledges that the ultrasound technology has helped shift the focus of the abortion controversy to the moral status of the unborn baby, rather than merely the rights of the pregnant woman. “The technology has clearly helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being,” she admits. “The other side has been able to use the technology to its own end.”
Yes, the pro-life movement has indeed been able to use the technology to focus attention on the unborn baby — and without apology. The sights of the life within the womb change everything. It is nothing less than breathtaking to read Kate Michelman speak of the unborn child as “a full, breathing human being.”
Sarah Kliff suggests that support for abortion rights remains high among even younger American women, but without sufficient passion and sense of urgency. She reports that NARAL and other groups must change their approach.
The approach favored by many pro-abortion advocates starts with an acknowledgment that abortion is a morally complex issue. Some activists want to see “an open discussion about the moral, ethical, and emotional complexity of abortion that would be more likely to resonate with young Americans.”
As Sarah Kliff explains, pro-abortion advocates have been stalwartly unwilling to admit this complexity, “viewing it as a slippery slope toward their own defeat.”
Nancy Keenan is among those calling for the more honest debate. She told a crowd in Austin, Texas that “our reluctance to address the moral complexity of this debate is no longer serving our cause or our country well.”
Yet, Kliff reminds her readers, when the health care reform bill was in debate, “no one was talking about moral complexity.” If the abortion-rights groups do not connect with a younger generation, she warned, they may well find themselves “sidelined.”
Kliff’s report is both insightful and important — very important. Alongside her analysis stands the “Roe Effect” argument made back in 2005 by James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal. Here is the core of his argument:
It is a statement of fact, not a moral judgment, to observe that every pregnancy aborted today results in one fewer eligible voter 18 years from now. . . . It seems self-evident that pro-choice women are more likely to have abortions than pro-life ones, and common sense suggests that children tend to gravitate toward their parents’ values.
In other words, the pro-abortion movement has weakened itself by the very fact that its core members tend to have fewer children and to have abortions in larger numbers than the general population. That math does not work to their advantage.
The biggest factor in all this is, we must hope, the growing sense among Americans that abortion is horribly wrong, not just morally complex. Once Americans see that “full, breathing human being” in the womb, everything is changed.
NARAL’s daughters are not where their mothers (and even grandmothers) were on the issue of abortion. That is a sign of hope — and a sign that the conscience of a culture can indeed be changed.
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Sarah Kliff, “Remember Roe! — How Can the Next Generation Defend Abortion Rights When They Don’t Think Abortion Rights Need Defending?,” Newsweek, April 26, 2010.
James Taranto, “The Roe Effect,” The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, July 6, 2005.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, “NARAL Pro-Choice America: Another Look at Reproductive Choice,” March 12, 2010.