Fresh from making a widely released statement in reaction to South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds' decision to sign his state's abortion ban, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan got on the phone to discuss her organization's long-planned day of action in support of its Prevention First initiative, scheduled for Tuesday.
Keenan explained that when she first came on as NARAL president a year ago, she presented a challenge to President Bush and to opponents of abortion rights, calling for those on the other side to support efforts to make contraception more accessible to those who would like to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
"We will forever disagree on the issue of abortion care," said Keenan, "but we should be able to agree that we can reduce unintended pregnancies." Of course, many on the other side of the abortion divide are also in favor of limiting access to birth control and emergency contraception. The past year has not been one of increased availability of options, but instead one of growing hurdles for many women looking to control their own reproduction.
So NARAL has purchased an ad in Tuesday's USA Today that reads, in part: "Americans are tired of divisive attacks on a woman's right to choose. That's why we are challenging federal and state lawmakers to unify behind commonsense measures to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion ... We support guaranteeing women's access to birth control, including the 'morning-after' pill, making sure our kids receive honest, realistic sex education, and increasing support for family-planning services."
NARAL will also hold a press briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss work being done on a state-by-state basis to increase the availability of birth control and good sex education for young people. It will also address the many pieces of national prevention legislation currently stalled in the House.
Asked whether her organization's focus will remain on prevention in the wake of the abortion bans sweeping through states including South Dakota, Keenan said, "It's not an either/or issue, because we will forever protect and defend a woman's right to choose. At the same time we are also very focused and working toward '08 to elect pro-choice candidates." And, of course, access to birth control and sex education is tied up with abortion rights and elections.
Among the pieces of legislation Keenan discussed by phone was the Responsible Education About Life bill, cosponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Barbara Lee, which would mandate the first-ever federal sex education program not to sell an abstinence-only line. Then there's the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act, in which women would be able to receive prescription contraception whether or not their pharmacists had personal objections. And there's the Compassionate Assistance bill, which would mandate that rape victims be offered emergency contraception in emergency rooms.
These are all reasonable, practical, right-minded pieces of legislation that have bipartisan support and scores of cosponsors. But as long as we have a House and Senate run by anti-choice politicians, they have not a prayer of moving forward. Echoing the reaction of many pro-choice leaders in the wake of Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court in January, Keenan said on Monday: "Elections matter."
"These politicians cannot continue to attack reproductive health and reproductive choice and not support prevention," said Keenan. "These are the same people that are advancing pharmacy refusal clauses, abstinence-only education, the ones that have tried to delay the FDA approval of the morning-after pill!" But, Keenan insisted, she doesn't believe that these public stances reflect majority opinion about reproductive rights and birth control. "This, and the South Dakota situation, reflect the divisiveness in this country. The president and many in his camp will pay the political price for this."