Yesterday Nancy Keenan, the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, announced that she is leaving her position at the end of this year. Keenan, who has been the president of NARAL since 2004, cited a concern for the future of the pro-choice movement as a factor in her decision: “If the pro-choice movement is to successfully defend abortion rights, Keenan contends, it needs more young people in leadership roles, including hers.”
It’s no secret that the abortion rights have come under increased attack over the past couple of years. A record number of anti-choice laws were enacted in 2011; earlier this year, controversial mandatory ultrasound laws passed in Virginia and Texas, and Arizona recently approved two incredibly restrictive anti-choice laws.
Each piece of legislation has had its own unique path from proposal to passage, and it would be ridiculous and simplistic to blame mainstream pro-choice organizations – or any one factor – as the reason for the recent onslaught of anti-choice laws. NARAL has done incredible work for decades on both the state and federal level, and can claim a lot of victories for the pro-choice movement.
Still, I find Keenan’s reason for stepping down intriguing. Whether younger generations take reproductive rights for granted has been an ongoing source of tension within the pro-choice movement. Personally, I think that the energy and creativity of younger activists is too often overlooked by the established organizations, but I also know plenty of pro-choice people my age and younger that just assume that abortion will always be legal. So I get the frustration expressed by the generation that actually fought to make abortion legal, that we just don’t have the same urgency that they did.
NARAL’s own research on the subject offers some striking insights. A 2010 poll showed that 51% of anti-choice voters under age 30 thought that abortion was a very important issue, but only 26% of pro-choice voters under 30 felt the same.
But it’s too easy to say that the younger generations don’t care about reproductive rights. Witness the groundswell of support for Sandra Fluke earlier this year, after she was attacked for supporting increased access to birth control; or the backlash that the Susan G. Komen Foundation experienced when it briefly pulled funding for services provided through Planned Parenthood. While they might not know a world without legal abortion and contraception, a lot of people born after Roe also have absolutely no interest in seeing just what that world might look like.
By recognizing the importance of inviting new voices, new energy, and new perspectives into a seemingly endless controversy, Keenan is gracefully making the way for the next generation to take the reins of the movement that she and her peers have steered for so long. Whoever takes over will have his or her own set of challenges to deal with, but hopefully, engaging with and listening to the voices of the younger generations will not be one of them.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.