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Roe v. Wade at 39: For NARAL, ‘a challenge and an opportunity’

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Katherine Frey

Today is the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Nancy Keenan is the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s oldest, abortion-rights advocacy organization, founded in 1969. In 2011, the group battled more abortion restrictions than it’s seen before in its four-decade history. States passed 69 laws curtailing abortion access in 2011, more than double the 34 such laws passed in 2010, according to a NARAL report released this week. We spoke Friday afternoon about the status of abortion rights in the United States, what changed last year and what to expect in 2012. A transcript of the discussion, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sarah Kliff: The Obama administration finalized this afternoon a health reform regulation that requires insurance companies to cover birth control without a co-pay. What does that mean for American women?

Nancy Keenan: It’s an extraordinary decision for women on this country, for us the contrast is clear as it can get in the middle of an election year. This is the kind of policy that helps women connect the personal to the political. When you figure 98 percent of women use birth control at some point, this will expand access to many women. I think it’s the biggest advancement of a generation.

SK: It sounds like 2012 is, so far, starting off a lot better than 2011 was for you and other abortion-rights groups. Tell me a bit about what you’ve seen in the past year of reproductive health legislation.

NK: It is a good start. We’re heading into the Roe anniversary with a near record-level of anti-choice activity. We saw 69 anti-choice laws pass in 2011, which just nearly broke a record of 70 laws in 1999. There’s a trend among the different restrictions we saw and, of course, the bottom line is this is interference with a woman’s privacy.

SK: What trends have you seen in state-level restrictions over the past year?

NK: Obviously we saw the personhood measures, and Mississippi was a prime example of that. We’ve also seen a lot of mandatory ultrasound legislation, most recently in Texas, as well as bans on abortions after 20 weeks. Many of those don’t have exceptions for women’s health, which we find very aggressive. But as bad as 2011 was, we anticipate 2012 could be worse.

SK: How would you describe the current state of Roe v. Wade, especially with all the abortion restrictions that went into effect last year? Have abortion rights in the United States been weakened?

NK: We have had four decades of success with Roe on the books and abortion being legal. I think what we’re seeing, whether in 2011 or another year, is many of these measures are creating barriers that block women from accessing abortion care. I see it both as a challenge and an opportunity. We can seize on that challenge to win the hearts and minds of the next generation. They will be the ones that shape the reproductive health movement in coming years.

SK: What are you expecting in 2012?

NK: It’s going to be like a re-run of 2011. We expect legislators to bring much of what we saw last year back. Right now, there are 19 state governments that are solidly anti-choice, meaning that the legislatures and governors oppose abortion rights. There are 44 mixed-choice states. Between all of them, there’s a lot of space for things to get even worse.

Related: An interview with Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest.

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