At the end of this year, Nancy Keenan will step down from her post as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s oldest abortion-rights advocacy group.
“There’s an opportunity for a new and younger leader,” Keenan said during a Wednesday interview in her downtown Washington office. “Roe v. Wade is 40 in January. It’s time for a new leader to come in and, basically, be the person for for the next 40 years of protecting reproductive choice.”
NARAL, which was founded in 1969, is in the middle of a multi-year effort to engage millennials on abortion rights. For three years, the group has used surveys and focus groups to try to better understand young voters. When the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade reaches its 40th anniversary next year, NARAL hopes to roll out a more extensive campaign.
“People give a lot of lip service to how we’re going to engage the next generation,” Keenan said, “but we can’t just assume it will happen on its own.”
Keenan has held the job for eight years, during which NARAL has lobbied Congress on 55 abortion-related votes and worked on over 4,000 pieces of state legislation. She describes herself as part of a “postmenopausal militia,” the baby-boomer activists who, as college students in the 1970s, fought for abortion rights. When the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, those activists won. Today, they run many of the major abortion-rights groups, such as NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women.
Keenan joined NARAL in late 2004, after a lengthy career in Montana politics, a state where support for abortion rights was not always a popular position.
“She took on this issue in the 1980s, before 1992 and the Year of the Woman made it something you talked about,”said Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager, who came up with Keenan in Montana politics. “I remember her continuing to talk about abortion rights...It was politically controversial, and Nancy didn’t care.”
Messina, who was a deputy chief of staff in the White House, remembers relying on Keenan’s advice -- and frankness -- during the health-care reform debate. The administration often came into conflict with abortion-rights groups, who protested new regulations in the health-care act meant to sway antiabortion Democrats.
“She is someone who can disagree with us and be honest about it,” he said. “I consulted with her frequently when I was at the White House. She would always tell you the truth...She was very loud and willing to use the ‘f’ word. That’s why I like her.”
During her tenure, Keenan helped send pro-choice candidates to Congress. In a 2008 post-election analysis, National Journal ranked NARAL the second-most effective endorser in highly contested Congressional races.
There were also setbacks. In the 2010 midterm elections, a wave of antiabortion legislators swept into Washington and took control of state governments across the country. The number of states with solidly antiabortion governors and legislatures spiked from 10 to 15.
“You go through those really good days, and we’ve had a lot of those, and you cherish them,” Keenan said. “The bad days, they happen, too. And they’re a lesson.”
States passed a record 92 abortion restrictions in 2011, more than any other year since Roe. The lesson that Keenan took away then, was that elections matter. So do the voters who will soon dominate them.
Millennials will make up 40 percent of the electorate by 2020, and Keenan questions whether she’s the right leader to reach these new groups.
“This issue has got to be a voting issue for them,” Keenan said. “If we want to continue protecting abortion rights in this country, this is so clearly the case.”
NARAL’s research, however, suggests it has a ways to go: Young voters do not make abortion rights a priority at the polls. In 2010, the group’s poll of 700 young Americans showed a stark “intensity gap” on abortion. Most antiabortion voters under 30 (51 percent) considered it a “very important” voting issue. Among abortion-rights millennials, that number stood at 26 percent.
“There is an intensity gap between our side, being pro-choice, and the other side,” Keenan said.
Part of that, abortion-rights advocates think, has to do with the different battles faced by each generation. Where baby boomer advocates fought for a constitutional right to legal abortion, younger activists have grown up with that right as a guarantee.
“I was born two months after Roe v. Wade was settled, so, in a way, the battle was won,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights to public office. “Our grandmothers and mothers fought these battles with intensity. When you’re fighting to hold onto something, rather than get something, it gets less intense.”
Under Keenan’s leadership, NARAL has begun aiming its message at young supporters. Using surveys and focus groups, the organization researched how those who have grown up in an era of legal abortion think about women’s right to choose. NARAL is now testing video concepts and putting together a campaign to mark four decades under Roe v. Wade.
By then, Keenan will have left her post, and NARAL will be recruiting those younger supporters to become leaders throughout the organization.
“I expect to see more young people involved in this organization,” said Rosalyn Levy Jonas, chair of NARAL’s board of directors. “I expect to see more young people on the board. I think those are important considerations for us.”
Abortion rights opponents, however, contend that Keenan and her colleagues are fighting a losing battle. A change in leadership, they say, won’t galvanize young supporters.
“This is not about tactics or strategy,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. “This is about the youth trending pro-life, or ambivalent.”