Do millennials care about abortion?

In an exit interview, NARAL's president tells Salon it's time a new generation leads. But she's not sure they will

Published January 3, 2013 7:59PM (EST)

On the eve of Roe v. Wade's 40th anniversary, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan, 60, announced she would celebrate by stepping down and handing the reins to a younger generation -- the same one she had been arguing for years lacks the pro-choice intensity and commitment of her own.

Formed originally to repeal abortion bans before Roe, NARAL is now most closely associated with lobbying on the federal and state level, and for its close ties to the Democratic Party. Keenan's departure after eight years follows an election cycle when Democrats didn't apologize for being pro-choice -- and won.

This last election year also featured unprecedented public mobilization, across generations, on issues around abortion, birth control and rape. Two men, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, most closely associated with a total abortion ban lost Senate bids they'd seemed poised to win. Akin, too, came from a House of Representatives where antiabortion and anti-family planning legislating had seemed like a full-time job, but whose actual legislative victories have been few.

In an interview with Salon, Keenan, formerly an elected official in Montana, looks back on victories and losses in the movement, why she believes the right to choose is "a lot less black and white than it's been made out to be," and why she thinks there's still an "intensity gap."

Looking back at this past year in reproductive rights, what do you feel like we can learn from it?

One, elections matter. And we saw that when so many seats were lost in 2010, we immediately saw the attacks on reproductive rights. Everything from the attacks on contraception, the attacks on Sandra Fluke, and the absolute insanity we saw coming out of the United States Congress with anything they could throw with trying to take away women's reproductive health. Elections matter.

What did you think of the response and the consequences to that insanity? 

We saw both at the federal and state level an outrage by the public. Virginia comes to mind, with the mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. People took to the streets in many ways and then took their voice and their vote to the ballot box. I think the American public [is] pro-choice. Let's keep in mind these folks ran in 2010 on the economy and jobs and no sooner arrived on Capitol Hill and they were attacking women's reproductive rights.

You were raised Catholic. Obviously, the Church took a pretty active role last year in opposing the birth control coverage in the Affordable Care Act. You've talked a lot about people finding common ground on family planning, but it wasn't just the Church -- it was the Republican Party signing on to it. 

I think their hypocrisy was exposed. Because you cannot advocate banning all abortions in this country while not making contraception available to women. You can't have it both ways. And in this election, people understood that it's common sense, that women have access to birth control. If we can prevent unintended pregnancies, we can reduce the need for abortion while keeping it safe and legal.

With both Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin, there was a lot of talk about rape exceptions. There was some worry that this made it seem like other abortions were for fun and jollies or that you're setting up this hierarchy. Should we be talking as much as we are talking about rape exceptions?

Let's keep in mind who's talking about it: They are. They want abortion banned even in the case of rape and incest. That's how extreme and out of touch they are with the American public. Women should have access to abortion care and the decision should be between them and their doctor and not these folks that are sitting on Capitol Hill or in state capitols across this country ... It exposed their real agenda, and that is to outlaw abortion in this country in all cases. And I think people saw that. They saw how extreme and out of touch they are with Middle America.

You're from Montana and you've talked a lot about how to have discussions to speak to people in red states. Do you think the pro-choice movement has gotten better at having those conversations or is it still as difficult as it was?

A lot of people thought, never would we defeat a Personhood amendment on the ballot in Mississippi. But when you talk to people, when you're able to have a conversation with your neighbor, the people realize how extreme these measures are and they reject them.

Do you think the House of Representatives and certain statehouses will continue to attack reproductive rights in the coming year?

There are 21 states that have anti-choice governor, House and Senate, so there's going to be a lot of activity there. There's really no firewall there. They can't help themselves on Capitol Hill. I anticipate that we're going to see more and more attacks on the federal level as well. The good news is that the Senate has been able to be the backstop ... [and we have] a pro-choice president.

The Democratic National Convention, where you spoke, had a very strong pro-choice message, only a few years after elections where it was said Democrats should be compromising on this issue more. 

Ever since I came to NARAL in '05, there was some discussion that [Democrats] lost in '04 because they had embraced pro-choice values. That was wrong. And the fact is, to advocate on behalf of your pro-choice values is a winnable issue. I think that particularly in 2012, Democrats stood up very strong and said, we get it, we understand it, these folks are so extreme that they really understand what's at stake here.

Did anybody say to you, I'm scared that having you here will be a replay of '04?

Not at all. Whether it was Cecile [Richards] over at Planned Parenthood or myself, we were always welcomed. We're partners in making sure, in the case of NARAL, that elected officials have what they need when they run for office and that they know we have their backs. And that when they stand with us, we stand with them. I've never felt there was any pushback from them at all.

You said, "if they stand with us." Whether it was on the state level or with some of the debates over the Affordable Care Act, some pro-choice people have felt that the Democratic Party hasn't always stood with them. Do you feel confident that they will after this election?

I can't speak to what the party is going to do moving forward, but I think they saw firsthand, that you can have a president --  first time in my lifetime I've seen a president who ran ads on keeping access to abortion care in this country and making sure that it is kept legal ... The numbers are in flux right now [in Congress], but the fact of the matter is, we picked up seats. And they ran on their pro-choice values and they won.

What's your read on where the president comes from on these issues?

I think he has held those pro-choice values since the time he was a state legislator. He has never wavered from those. I think he understands what's at risk when you see the attacks you have in Congress. Most recently, with the Shaheen Amendment [which provides servicewomen with insurance coverage for abortion in the case of rape and incest], there was a statement from the White House supporting that amendment.

Within the anti-choice movement, they've said they should have portrayed Obama as an abortion extremist. Was that something you guys expected to have to defend him on during the campaign?

The other side, I almost find it humorous when they say they could portray him as extreme when they are the extreme group here. They are the ones trying to outlaw birth control in this county. That is so out of the mainstream.

There's obviously a lot of defense that has to happen in the movement -- we have a more pro-choice Senate and don't have to worry about a Romney presidency, but there's still the House. What kind of proactive measures would you like to see the movement pursue?

Well, I think the first step, obviously, was Jeanne Shaheen's amendment to the Defense Department bill. That was huge. The movement has been working on that for over 10 years. That was a good first step. Obviously we would like to see full funding of family planning in the budget. So the budget is going to be a battleground here. There's going to be a lot of defense because that's just how the House is going to operate, and there are some other things like funding of medically accurate sex education. But it's hard to move anything when you have a House that is so anti-choice.

Do you think we'll ever see federally funded abortion beyond the very narrow exceptions available [under the Hyde Amendment]? 

I think we're going to have to continue to work on that front. It's been 30 years but we believe it is critical in ensuring that women have access to abortion, especially poor women. So we'll fight that fight. But it's really tough if you don't have a majority in both houses that share those values.

What kinds of mistakes do you think the pro-choice movement has made?

I imagine someone from the outside could look in and say, sure, they would have done something differently. But overall we were successful on healthcare -- although we didn't like the Nelson Amendment, we were able to still make sure that abortion coverage in insurance was still available to women. There are millions of women going to have access to care they never did before. And we've been able to stop some really horrific legislation that would affect women's lives day in and day out.

In 2008 you gave a speech that said, "We need to acknowledge what we all know to be true today: A woman’s right to choose is a morally complex issue, and a lot less black and white than it’s been made out to be." Would you make the same speech today? And what do you think making it changed?  

Absolutely I would give it today. This is where none of us can walk in another woman's shoes. None of us knows the situation that she is in. None of us know what her feelings are. It is a complexity for every woman. It is not something that is done cavalierly. It is not. She thinks about it. As I've said to many elected officials, women hear their gods. They don't need to be listening to the gods of politicians.

But it could also be read that the speech was apologizing or giving up ground. When you say it's not black and white and the pro-choice movement has been too black and white, are you saying it needs to be more compromising?

No, absolutely not. It's not about compromising. It's about recognizing that women who choose abortion care are also women of faith. And don't let the other side own that. We, too, are women in this country, many women in this country, some that don't believe --  but it's to say, only she can decide. And don't give up the ground that we are not good people and people of faith. That's the point here. It's not about compromising on the issue of making sure that abortion is safe and legal in this country … Women who choose to have abortions in this country are moral and good people and none of us, no one, should judge her on that decision.

You made some controversial comments in Newsweek about millennials being less pro-choice. Some younger feminists felt like you were saying that they didn't exist or that they were less active. 

I was not speaking about the young women who have committed their lives and dedicated enormous energy to this movement, men and women. I'm talking about that group of millennials out there under 30 who have not connected the personal to the political on this issue. They are a very large generation, there are about 76 million of them. They are pro-choice, but they don't put the issue of protecting this decision at the top of their list. So there is an intensity gap. If you put five pro-choice millennials in a room, probably one of them would vote their pro-choice values as a very critical factor for them, but if you put five anti-choice millennials in a room, almost two of them would vote their anti-choice values [based on our research]. By 2020, the millennials will be about 40 percent of the voting population in this country.

Do you feel like this year you started to see that engagement from millennials?

Absolutely ... [But] this generation has to also connect the relationship to their voting, their values. And I'm not sure that we're all the way there. There's a lot of work to be done on that front. It is not the No. 1 item on their list in terms of things to protect.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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