April 19, 2010 — Newsweek staff writer Sarah Kliff writes that antiabortion-rights Democrats' influence on the health reform debate raised a critical question for abortion-rights advocates: "[I]f Democrats won't stand for strong abortion rights, who will?"
Kliff reports that the leaders of most of the major abortion-rights groups -- including NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Organization for Women -- belong to a generation that has firsthand experience with the fight for legalization of abortion. According to NARAL President Nancy Keenan, many younger abortion-rights supporters -- those born after Roe v. Wade -- lack the passion of what she calls the "postmenopausal militia" -- the women in their 50s who fought for and defended Roe.
According to a NARAL survey conducted earlier this year and released exclusively to Newsweek, 51% of voters younger than age 30 who oppose abortion rights consider it a "very important" voting issue, compared with 26% of their peers who support abortion rights. The survey, which included 700 young voters, showed that many young people do not "view abortion as an imperiled right in need of defenders" and that they "are more likely than their boomer parents to see abortion as a moral issue," according to Kliff. In NARAL focus groups, many young voters considered an individual woman's decision to have an abortion an immoral choice, but they believed that the government did not have a right to intervene, Kliff writes.
Kliff continues that the antiabortion-rights movement fueled the shift in young people's attitudes by "reframing the abortion debate around the fetus rather than the pregnant woman." NARAL President Emerita Kate Michelman said ultrasound "technology has clearly helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being," adding that the antiabortion-rights movement "has been able to use the technology to its own end." Kliff notes that 38 states consider it a separate crime to kill a fetus during an act of aggression against a pregnant woman, while "just last week, Nebraska banned abortions after 20 weeks because of the possibility that the fetus could feel pain."
Despite legislative trends, public support for legal abortion in at least some circumstances has remained between 75% and 85% since 1975, according to annual Gallup polls. In addition, the NARAL survey found that 61% of young people identified themselves as "pro-choice" and said they support legal abortion in "all cases" or "most cases." Therefore, Kliff writes, "the challenge is not necessarily shoring up support for the cause but convincing the next generation that legal abortion is vulnerable." The paradox is that "the better that NARAL defends abortion rights, the less pressing its cause seems," she adds.
According to Kliff, Keenan has raised the idea that NARAL needs to "adopt a more nuanced stance." In a 2008 speech marking the 35th anniversary of Roe, Keenan said, "[O]ur reluctance to address the moral complexity of this debate is no longer serving our cause or our county well. In our silence, we have ceded moral ground" (Kliff, Newsweek, 4/16).