NARAL President Nancy Keegan steps down

Nancy Keegan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, has announced her resignation. Keegan claims that

she is leaving out of concern for the future of the pro-choice movement — and thinks she could be holding it back. . . [Snip] . . . If the pro-choice movement is to successfully defend abortion rights, Keenan contends, it needs more young people in leadership roles, including hers.

“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.”

It’s unclear what other factors may have played a role in Keenan’s decision to step down. And while I don’t believe that younger leaders would necessarily bring in fresh ideas conducive to better outcomes, I do believe that the beleaguered pro-choice movement needs to seriously rethink its approach. For decades now, it’s been a terrible political climate for reproductive rights, and a woman’s right to an abortion is being slowly chipped away. I don’t blame the pro-choice establishment for this sorry state of affairs, but it must be said that their responses to it have not been particularly inspiring. Nor have they been particularly successful in stemming the anti-choice tide.

Personally, I believe that the decision of the reproductive rights movement to use the abstract, market-friendly, neoliberal language of “choice” to frame the abortion issue has been a disaster. I’m sure there were many reasons why the pro-choice movement did this. Choice language may have reached some voters who were otherwise unreachable, and it’s likely that survey research suggested that this was the most promising approach.

But the fact is, the most powerful reason to support abortion rights is to support the right of women to control their bodies, their lives, and their reproductive destiny. It’s true that using language that foregrounded women’s freedom and autonomy rather than their right to choose might have cost the pro-choice movement some tepid support over the short term.

But over the long haul, I think that a frank argument centered on a woman’s right to sexual and personal autonomy would have been more powerful, and ultimately, moved more people. For decades now, it seems like all the passion and moral urgency over the abortion issue has come from the pro-lifers. When you’ve got passionate activists arguing in favor of the right to life and waving around pictures of bloody fetuses on the one hand, and on the other you have cool talking heads solemnly intoning that abortion must be “safe, legal, and rare,” or chattering about some abstract, airy “right to choose,” it’s no contest as to who has the more compelling-seeming argument. Or so it seems to me.

For activists, there’s always a tradeoff between making passionate, morally unyielding and possibly unpopular arguments on the one hand, and strategically deploying softer, more palatable, less threatening arguments, on the other. The latter may be tactically shrewd but strategically unwise. I believe this has been the case with abortion.

The Washington Post notes that

In recent years, Keenan has worried about an “intensity gap” on abortion rights among millennials, which the group considers to be the generation of Americans born between 1980 and 1991. While most young, antiabortion voters see abortion as a crucial political issue, NARAL’s own internal research does not find similar passion among abortion-rights supporters.

Maybe there’s a simple reason for this, which is that pro-choice leaders have dropped the ball by making timid, unpersuasive arguments about abortion being a “choice,” as if it were some kind of consumer good. Perhaps if they’d chosen the more difficult, less comfortable, but possibly more rewarding path of unapologetically arguing for abortion as a positive good in itself, more young people would feel moved by the moral urgency of the cause.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee