By Kliff, Sarah
Newsweek , Vol. 155, No. 17
Byline: Sarah Kliff
How can the next generation defend abortion rights when they don't think abortion rights need defending?
When the history of the 21st century is written, March 21, 2010, will go down as the day Congress cleared the way for health-care reform. Yet for those in the abortion-rights community, March 21 will mark a completely different turning point: the day when they became acutely aware of their waning influence in Washington. The Democratic Party has, since 1980, supported a woman's right to an abortion. But in 2008 it decided to broaden its appeal by running an unprecedented number of anti-abortion-rights candidates in socially conservative swing districts. That move helped secure a robust House majority for the Democrats.
But abortion-rights supporters could no longer count on that majority to vote their way. The shift first became clear during the health-care debate, when abortion-rights supporters found their cause rather easily brushed aside in pursuit of another, larger goal. Anti-abortion Democrats, most notably the now retiring Rep. Bart Stupak, pressed for stringent abortion restrictions. While Stupak's desired language did not ultimately survive, the final health-care law was more than a psychological setback: it requires separate payments for abortion coverage on the public exchange. The strict accounting rules could well prove so onerous that insurers drop abortion coverage altogether.
So if Democrats won't stand strong for abortion rights, who will? The predicament weighed particularly heavily on NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country's oldest abortion-rights group. Founded in 1969 as the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws, NARAL has helped protect Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, against countless legislative challenges. NARAL president Nancy Keenan had grown fearful about the future of her movement even before the health-care debate. Keenan considers herself part of the "postmenopausal militia," a generation of baby-boomer activists now well into their 50s who grew up in an era of backroom abortions and fought passionately for legalization. Today they still run the major abortion-rights groups, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization for Women.
These leaders will retire in a decade or so. And what worries Keenan is that she just doesn't see a passion among the post-Roe generation--at least, not among those on her side. This past January, when Keenan's train pulled into Washington's Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, she was greeted by a swarm of anti-abortion-rights activists. It was the 37th annual March for Life, organized every year on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe. "I just thought, my gosh, they are so young," Keenan recalled. "There are so many of them, and they are so young." March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had about 1,300 attendees.
New NARAL research, conducted earlier this year and released exclusively to NEWSWEEK, only amplified Keenan's fears. A survey of 700 young Americans showed there was a stark "intensity gap" on abortion. More than half (51 percent) of young voters (under 30) who opposed abortion rights considered it a "very important" voting issue, compared with just 26 percent of abortion-rights supporters; a similar but smaller gap existed among older voters, too. Worse still for NARAL, the millennials surveyed didn't view abortion as an imperiled right in need of defenders. As one young mother in a focus group told NARAL, it seemed to her that abortion was easily accessible. How did she know? The parking lot at her local clinic, she told them, was always full.
Millennials are more likely than their boomer parents to see abortion as a moral issue. In the NARAL focus groups, young voters flat-out disapproved of a woman's abortion, called her actions immoral, yet maintained that the government had absolutely no right to intervene. …