Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is taking the lead of an organization facing the most critical, pivotal time in its history.
An antiabortion conservative majority rules Congress. President Bush is likely to appoint at least one, and perhaps two or three, Supreme Court justices. Emboldened religious conservative groups are vowing to lobby heavily for Supreme Court appointments that will ensure that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, is reversed.
It is safe to say that NARAL Pro-Choice America, the political arm of the abortion rights movement, is facing its biggest fight since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
But Keenan, in an interview shortly after she was officially offered her new job yesterday afternoon, sounded upbeat and excited.
"I'm thrilled," Keenan, 52, a former Montana legislator and superintendent of education, said of her new post. "I really believe that pro-choice is an American value and that it is shared by women and men across the country."
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legal. But the Nov. 2 election has strengthened the antiabortion conservative religious right. Newly reelected Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), in line to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over Bush's judicial nominations, has faced extraordinary grilling over the last several days by Republican leaders for a comment he made suggesting that antiabortion nominees would have a hard time getting confirmed by the Senate, and religious conservatives are furiously lobbying against him.
Keenan said NARAL Pro-Choice America's job, aside from the expected battle over the Supreme Court, will be to energize and mobilize a new generation of leaders and activists -- young people who grew up with Roe v. Wade -- who will help in the grass-roots efforts for reproductive rights for women.
Chosen from a pool of more than 300 applicants, Keenan is fairly new to Washington. She has worked at People for the American Way here since 2001 as its field education policy director, but before that she was superintendent of public education in Montana, a statewide elected post, for six years, after serving a dozen years as a Montana legislator. A Democrat in a Republican state, she lost a bid to become Montana's sole representative to the U.S. House in 2000.
In 1989, when she was a Montana legislator, Keenan and a colleague were publicly rebuked by a Montana bishop for speaking at an abortion rights rally, she said. The ordeal became news, she said, with talk of her being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. "It was a very personal experience for me having been born and raised Catholic," she said. "It was very, very big."
She said the experience reaffirmed her passion and commitment to NARAL's cause.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League, changed its name in 2003 to emphasize its stance as the voice of Americans who support a woman's right to choose, said Sally Patterson, the chair of the board. Its focus is electing candidates who support abortion rights for state and federal offices, and countering what its Web site calls "an onslaught of legislation aimed at restricting women's choices and curtailing women's reproductive health options."
The organization spent several million dollars during the presidential campaign, running television advertising, mobilizing paid canvassers and thousands of volunteers in key states, and printing and distributing campaign literature.
But if the election energized antiabortion forces, it also mobilized NARAL's base. A petition NARAL put on its Web site urging Bush to nominate justices who support abortion rights has received 30,000 signatures.
"We have America on our side," Keenan said.