February 3, 2012

Last spring, Cecile Richards’s BlackBerry buzzed with an unexpected text message. It was from her son Daniel, a college student in Pennsylvania. He was heading off to Toledo, having organized a bus trip of friends to attend a rally supporting Planned Parenthood. The message came as Congress was debating ending the group’s nearly $100 million in federal funding.

Richards was surprised: Despite her five years now as president of Planned Parenthood, her son had never been active in abortion politics. To her, Daniel and his friends represented a wave of young supporters whom groups such as hers had long struggled to engage. All it took was a sustained attack on government funding of family planning, waged at the federal and state level, to get them there.

Threats to private support haven’t hurt, either. When news broke this past week that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation had pulled its funding for cancer-screening programs at Planned Parenthood, the public relations disaster boosted Planned Parenthood fundraising and energized supporters. Komen saw such a strong backlash that, within 72 hours, it reversed its decision. An aggressive assault that took the battle beyond abortion to contraceptives and preventive health care may have been just what the abortion rights movement needed.

States passed 92 abortion restrictions in 2011, more than double the total in any other year over the past three decades. Last year was also when the abortion debate expanded beyond a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. While the Hyde Amendment has long prohibited federal funding of abortion, antiabortion activists have pushed for more stringent restrictions. They turned to national and state legislators to bar abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood, from receiving funds for other services they provide, such as cancer screenings and contraceptives.

“I’ve been at Planned Parenthood for about five years and have spent those years telling people, ‘This is what we do, we see 3 million patients a year,’ and it’s just like the reaction is, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ ” Richards says, reflecting on the congressional funding debate. “In the space of two months, we did more to educate people about who we are and what we do than anything else.”

In wide-ranging interviews over the past month, heads of a half-dozen major women’s groups echoed Richards’s sentiments. They are frustrated at the restrictions that passed in 2011, but they also recognize that the fight finally got young people involved.

For years, abortion rights advocates have battled an intensity gap: Their supporters don’t feel as strongly about protecting abortion access as antiabortion voters do about restricting it. This has been especially true for younger voters, the Millennials who grew up after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, with its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. In 2010, a NARAL Pro-Choice America survey found that most voters under 30 who opposed abortion rights considered it a “very important” voting issue. Among abortion rights supporters, that proportion was 26 percent.

“These are people that we haven’t quite crossed their radar screen,” NARAL President Nancy Keenan explained in a recent interview. “They share our values, they’re pro-choice, but the question is: How do we talk to them?”

Keenan’s opponents unexpectedly came up with an answer: Widen the reproductive-health debate to include family planning and contraceptives. Last spring, abortion became a linchpin issue in Congress. But the discussion shifted to a new kind of restriction: that providers that terminate pregnancies should not receive federal funding for family-planning services. Congress debated both ending Title X, the only federal program devoted to family planning, and cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood. The latter became one of the last sticking points in the budget debate in April, nearly shutting down the federal government.

“If Planned Parenthood wants to be involved in providing counseling services and HIV testing, they ought not be in the business of providing abortions,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who led the charge against Planned Parenthood, said in an interview last year. “As long as they aspire to do that, I’ll be after them.”

Planned Parenthood was eager to engage in a discussion of the services it provides that aren’t abortion. About two-thirds of the medical care it delivers consists of screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.

After the White House blocked House Republicans’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, state legislatures turned to the task. Nine states passed laws that bar abortion providers from receiving federal funding, leaving the White House to determine whether that makes them ineligible to participate in programs such as Medicaid.

On family-planning issues such as these, the intensity gap flips: A much larger segment of voters is willing to penalize a politician who does not support access to contraceptives. Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, found that 40 percent of voters would be less likely to support a member of Congress who votes to defund family-planning programs. Just 22 percent would be more likely to support such a lawmaker.

“This year there were so many attacks, and so many aimed at birth control,” says Shelby Knox, a 25-year-old abortion rights activist who was the subject of a 2005 documentary on sex education in Texas. “That has activated a whole new generation who organize in a different way. If you want to find a silver lining in these attacks on women’s reproductive health, it’s causing the movement to grow.”

Planned Parenthood says its e-mail list increased by 1.2 million people last year, half of whom were under 35. In the 24 hours after the Komen funding news broke Tuesday, 6,000 online donors contributed $400,000. On an average day, the group receives 100 to 200 donations.

Other abortion rights groups, while not as much in the spotlight, have seen a similar effect. At the height of the congressional battle over Planned Parenthood’s funding, NARAL says it was adding more than 2,000 people to its mailing lists each day. Emily’s List, founded in 1985 to support pro-choice female candidates, has seen its membership more than double since Republicans took control of the House last January, from 400,000 to more than 1 million this past month.

Opposition can often have an energizing effect on social movements. Pro-abortion-rights fundraising was strongest in 2004, when groups campaigned against President George W. Bush, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Conversely, a lack of urgency can take the air out of a movement’s sails. As sociologist Suzanne Staggenborg wrote in “The Pro-Choice Movement,” donations to NARAL plummeted in 1973 after Roe v. Wade, because “supporters thought the battle was over.”

For many women who have grown up in an era of legal abortion, that mentality has persisted. NARAL’s Keenan often refers to the graying heads of the major women’s groups as the “menopausal militia.”

Knox adds: “Younger women have always been active around reproductive health; I think it’s a myth they haven’t. But I think this definitely energized people my age in a way we hadn’t been before.”

For abortion rights groups now, the focus is on whether a groundswell of support can translate into gains at the ballot box and the election of legislators who will reverse the laws passed in 2011. The voters they’ve energized overlap with those who stayed home in 2010. While 55 percent of women ages 18 to 29 voted in 2008, just 24.5 percent did in 2010, according to data from civic youth group CIRCLE.

“Women did not turn out to vote” in 2010, says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “Democrats had a double-digit lead [among female voters] in 2008, and there was a gender gap in favor of Democrats. That gender gap disappeared in 2010.”

NARAL has begun dividing its e-mail list between its younger and older supporters, testing different messages on about 10 percent of its subscribers. The group saw response rates double when younger people received a message from a NARAL staff member their own age, rather than one from the group’s president.

“Much of our list consists of people who are baby boomers,” says NARAL communication director Ted Miller. “With Millennials, we’re trying to be more strategic and communicate in a different way.”

Abortion rights opponents plan to continue their similarly aggressive campaign in 2012, one they say has energized their own base. The 2010 election cycle was by far the movement’s strongest for fundraising. Groups raised nearly $3 million, more than double the total of any other election cycle in the past two decades.

At this year’s March for Life, which drew thousands of pro-life advocates to Washington from across the country last month, Americans United for Life handed out hundreds of red “Defund Planned Parenthood” signs. “That’s meant to be a signal,” says the group’s president, Charmaine Yoest, who plans to continue pressuring Congress to investigate the organization.

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, has been leaning more heavily on social media and engagement. On Facebook, its page gets the second-most comments among nonprofits, coming in just after the Public Broadcasting Service. When the Komen controversy took off, the organization got thousands of messages on its Facebook wall.

Political candidates in tough races are now looking to these newly engaged voters to buoy their campaigns. One of them is Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), whose contest for an open Senate seat is expected to be a difficult one. She spoke last month to a crowd of nearly 400 young Planned Parenthood supporters at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in downtown Washington to kick off “Women are Watching,” the group’s 2012 campaign. The attendees paid $50 to sip pink cocktails, and the crowd was relatively young; when Hirono asked women over 40 to raise their hands, barely an arm went up.

“The very first political letter I ever wrote in my life was to demand abortion rights for women, over 40 years ago,” she told them. “I’m looking out at you; you guys weren’t even born yet. I see all of you women who are activated, who are watching what’s happening. We need a whole generation of women like you.”

kliffs@washpost.com

Sarah Kliff covers health policy for The Washington Post and writes for The Post’s Wonkblog.

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How an anti-abortion push to redefine ‘person’ could hurt women’s rights

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