A revealing article in Newsweek shows the abortion rights movement in the United States painfully aware of its ageing leadership and lack of traction amongst young adults. NARAL president Nancy Keenan and others concede that they have failed to address the “moral complexity” of abortion, something that even pro-choice young people now take on board.
The article, by a Newsweek writer and in a style one could only describe as abortion advocacy, notes the movement’s “waning influence” in Washington and its heavy dependence on the original Roe generation.
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.
To make matters worse for abortion advocates, young people who do support abortion are lukewarm:
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.
Abortion rights leaders acknowledge that their opponents, who focus on the fetus, have gained ground from ultrasound technology.
“The technology has clearly helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being,” admits former NARAL president Kate Michelman. “The other side has been able to use the technology to its own end.”
There is, says Newsweek, “a growing consensus on a promising path forward: start an open discussion about the moral, ethical, and emotional complexity of abortion that would be more likely to resonate with young Americans.” Keenen herself has said: “our reluctance to address the moral complexity of this debate is no longer serving our cause or our country well. In our silence, we have ceded moral ground.”
An analysis by Gallup of polling data on the abortion issue since 1975 confirms NARAL’s fears. In a sharp change from the situation 35 years ago, young adults (18 to 29) are now slightly more likely than all other groups, including seniors (over 65) to say that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. In 2005-2009, 23 per cent of young adults polled held this position, compared with 21 per cent of seniors and 17 per cent of the age groups in between. In general, the age groups have converged over time.
This is very encouraging because it shows young people rejecting merely ideological positions, looking at the facts for themselves, and committing themselves to a true human rights and human dignity cause.