The Future of the Pro-Choice Movement

The Future of the Pro-Choice Movement

As Roe v. Wade turns forty, NARAL seeks to mobilize a younger generation of activists.


Outgoing NARAL president Nancy Keenan. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.)

Attendees to NARAL Pro Choice America’s annual dinner last night, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, could have been forgiven if, for a moment, they thought they had wandered into the wrong ballroom.

At one point during the event, the room lights dimmed and giant screens on either side of the stage were filled with the face of a clean-cut young man who introduced himself as Mark Early. He told the camera that if he could wave a magic wand that would make Roe v. Wade disappear tomorrow, he wouldn’t hesitate. In just over a minute, the audience learned that Early is twenty-four, married, and active in the anti-choice movement. “I do think it’s possible that Roe v. Wade will be overturned and I don’t think it’s unlikely either,” he said. “I think young people will eventually come around. I want to be a part of that.”

But this was indeed the NARAL dinner—and its outgoing president, Nancy Keenan, was trying to instill a sense of urgency among attendees who perhaps felt a bit complacent after this past November’s elections. Indeed, Republicans who staked their careers on dismantling a woman's right to choose “paid dearly at the ballot box,” as Keenan noted.

But, she continued, “our opponents…will not take those losses last year sitting down…while they poured unprecedented resources into the campaigns in 2012, they were also very busy building a network of young, committed activists indoctrinated in the same anti-choice philosophy that we have fought against for the last forty years.”

And, as the video suggested, “They have a unique advantage, for they speak about change. And we're defending a right secured some forty years ago,” Keenan said.

The fact that the battle over reproductive rights is quickly evolving and changing is one reason why Keenan has stepped aside as president of NARAL, and that Ilyse Hogue, former Director of Political Advocacy and Communications for, and writer for The Nation, is taking over. This was a theme hit by many speakers throughout the night—that change was good, and that hard work lied ahead.

“Nancy understands that the pro-choice movement must focus on the future,” lauded Tammy Duckworth, a freshman Congresswoman from Illinois and Iraq War veteran, in her speech introducing Keenan. “For that reason she has made the bold decision to step aside to provide, as she says, an opportunity for a new and younger leader to take the helm for the next forty years of protecting reproductive choice. Nancy knows that the future of this movement is in the hands of the rising millenial generation.”

Duckworth beat Representative Joe Walsh in November, a Tea Party die-hard strongly against the right to choose. But of course the headline victory for reproductive rights in November was Barack Obama’s triumph over Mitt Romney, who no doubt would have appointed Supreme Court justices likely to rule against Roe v. Wade.

Stephanie Cutter, one of the architects of that victory, also spoke at the dinner. She commended Kennan's tireless efforts over the past eight years, saying, “It's easy to see the fruits of your labor, all the hard work that you've put in. Just go up to Capitol Hill, or to state houses around the country and count how many more pro-choice representatives you and NARAL have helped get there. It's not an accident that Roe v. Wade is still around.”

While young anti-choice activists are indeed increasingly organized, the millennial generation still has a pro-choice lean. NARAL Pro-Choice America’s research shows that six out of ten Americans in the millenial generation share the organization’s pro-choice values. So the challenge lies in mobilizing young people who support reproductive rights to become more active in defending them.

To that end, NARAL has launched the “Their Choice Out Loud” campaign, which combines tried-and-true grassroots organizing techniques with new media to reach out to students on college campuses and engage women across generations in sharing their stories online. With Hogue’s leadership as an innovator in online organizing, Their Choice Out Loud and future projects like it are hoping to become more effective in engaging a younger generation of pro-choice activists.

Some of those emerging activists were present at Tuesday’s dinner. Kathryn Tinker calls herself an “accident baby.” Coming from a Catholic family, Tinker's mother decided not to have an abortion when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. So its hard for Kathryn’s mother to understand why Tinker, as president of American University’s College Democrats, is active in the pro-choice movement.

Tinker says that at this time last year she was still trying to wrap her head around what it means to be pro-choice.

“It was actually a conversation that Nancy Keenan had at NARAL headquarters with a bunch of millenials from different college campuses that really spoke to me. She phrased it in a way that actually made sense, which is that it really is about trusting women,” Tinker said.

Now when Tinker talks to her mom about her position on abortion, “I have to explain to her that, that's the thing, the fact that she was able to choose to have me in this world is what I'm fighting for.”

Even though seven out of ten Americans support Roe v. Wade, conservative legislators continue to attack the right to choose, Ilyse Hogue said in her first speech as NARAL president.

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