Nancy Keenan Responds to Newsweek Article on Young Pro-Choice Activists

An article this week in Newsweek sparked a debate about the role of younger voters in prochoice advocacy.  Nancy Keenan responds here to some of this debate, also engaged by Elise Higgins, Tatiana Mckinney, CPC-watcher, and Aspen Baker.

The article from this week’s edition of Newsweek, authored by Sarah Kliff, generated a lot of healthy discussion. All of these opinions have merit, all of these arguments are valid, and all deserve the space and time to marinate both online and offline.

Since I am included in this story, and NARAL Pro-Choice America’s research on younger voters is referenced, I want to explain a bit more of the rationale behind this initiative. 

Myriad blog posts have drawn significant attention to the issue of younger people’s involvement in the pro-choice movement. For instance, this section of the article:

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.

Look – if I was a young reproductive-justice activist, I’d be really upset, too. I am not a young activist, and I don’t like the way that paragraph comes off. I see the contributions young feminist activists are making everyday to the pro-choice movement, and I can only imagine how annoying it is for these young women and men to read over and over again about previous generations lamenting a lack of activism.

Like Jessica Valenti notes over at Feministing, young feminist activists are important and crucial players in everything we do, from the big events – like the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, to much of the behind-the-scenes operations – like interning, volunteering, and using online tools for advocacy. Many of them are my colleagues here at NARAL Pro-Choice America (and more than half of my staff is under the age of 35).

Our whole purpose with the research project is to move the conversation forward. Our target audience wasn’t the young people who already are engaged.

It’s clear that many young people are already part of this movement, but there are some who may never attend a rally, post a pro-choice action on their Facebook page, or discuss the political implications of what kind of sex education they received in high school. Their level of involvement isn’t as high, but we must remember that they are voters. As the political leader of the pro-choice movement, it’s imperative for us to connect with these voters now.

The initial research (PDF) shows two primary findings:

  1. Younger people are solidly pro-choice;
  2. However, anti-choice younger voters are twice as likely to consider a candidate’s position on abortion when voting then their pro-choice counterparts.

Our ability to effectively connect with voters who aren’t necessarily activists is crucial if we are to close this intensity gap. That’s why we’re committed to initiatives like our research project that give us the ability to listen and learn from this influential bloc of voters. In short: we have to reach them where they are and bring them to us.

Keep in mind: this research was a start, not the end. We welcome any ideas, thoughts, and strategies on how we can strengthen our ties to this emerging electoral powerhouse. Take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments below, and thank you for your hard work. We would not be here without you.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, these conversations are healthy. I hope that we can all continue to have these discussions.

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  • concernedmom

    Of the debate, “Ms. Keenan is right to be worried,” commented Wendy Wright, President of Concerned Women for America.
    “As more evidence proves the humanity of unborn babies & the pain that abortion causes mothers and babies, more people will be[come] pro life.” Wright said. Adding that “Pro abortion is motivated by anger. Pro life is motivated by love. A fact that appeals especially to a generation that is desperate for the bonds of family.”
    Kristin Hawkins of Students for Life of America has stated the fears of the abortion giant [NARAL] are playing out visibly on college campuses, where she says pro life groups are routinely more vigorous & longer lasting than pro abortion groups.

  • colleen

    I don’t know any ‘pro-abortion’ folks so that she may be correct about their motivations.

    Do you suppose this is an example of what Ms Wright means by ‘love’?:

    because it looks and acts a lot like hate to me.

    • princess-rot

      I find it interesting that conservatives describe family as “bonds”, almost like it’s shackling, or something. Also, “pro-aborts” are motivated by anger, apparently, but she fails to elaborate exactly what about and why. We are just supposed to take “pro-choicers are motivated by anger” at face value?

  • cpcwatcher

    Thank you, Ms. Keenan.  I’m one of the incensed young repro-justice activists, but never thought you yourself believed the article’s end conclusions.  You obviously work on the ground with many young people from my generation (and younger even!), and no doubt were as puzzled as we were by the assumptions made by Kliff.

  • crowepps

    The story isn’t going to sell magazines unless there’s ‘conflict’, and nobody wants to read any more of same old boring conflict between the Church Prudes and the Feminists – been there, done that, nothing has changed, except the occasional passage of an idiotic law readers can get a chuckle out of or the occasional murder.


    In order to sneak this issue past the assignment editor they have to come up with a new take on it – doing stories about ‘vicious infighting over split on ProLife issues – is not getting pregnant in the first place equivalent to abortion’ or ‘Reproductive Justice advocates sneer at their young supporters’.


    None of which, of course, necessarily has any connection whatsoever to the actual facts of what’s going on but is easily ‘packaged’ by sorting everybody involved into two groups, ignoring most of the issues and picking the one that’s the most ‘hot’ (can the word SEX be used in the headline?), and then supplying one opinon for each side of the controversy as through all of the members of each group were in monolithic agreement.


    Edward R. Murrow would weep.

  • truth

    Killing bad. Living good. You cannot win. It is only a matter of time. These young people are smart – they can see through the guise of women’s rights and choose to give the unborn child equal rights to live. You cannot hope to treat one group of people (women) as better than another group of people (the unborn). We already had a civil war of this erroneous concept – remember? These children/young anti-abortion activists know this, and I doubt they will stop teaching what happened with the slave trade in schools any time soon or the holocaust, etc. No one needs to connect the dots for them – it’s as obvious as the ugliness your are spewing from your every pore.

  • crowepps

    “In such societies, male interests and priorities are given more weight than maternal ones, with the result that high fertility (quantity) often takes precedence over child well-being (quality).”


    “Patriarchal societies are those in which patrilineal interests have, over time and by whatever means, come to prevail over strictly maternal ones. The goal is to produce offspring — often many of them — of undisputed paternity, no matter the cost to their mothers.”


    Mother Nature, Hrdy

  • squirrely-girl


    You cannot win. It is only a matter of time. 

    Were you going to hold your breath until then?


    You cannot hope to treat one group of people (women) as better than another group of people (the unborn).

    But aren’t YOU advocating to treat the other group (fetuses) better than the first group (women)? You’re making an illogical argument here. And just so you know, YES we can hope to treat one group better than the other, considering that one group (women) consists of people who are ALREADY LIVING. 


    BTW – I love when people throw in a random “slave trade” or “holocaust (sic)” reference to add some “razzle dazzle” to their post. If anything, the Holocaust IS a fairly relevant reference here… it never ceases to amaze/depress me how children raised on hateful propaganda can go forth into the world and continue to spew their vitriol with such passion. Nazis raised their children to hate Jews. White supremacists raise their children to hate other ethnicities. Cult members raise their children to become obedient cult members. Terrorists raise their children to become terrorists. Just because extremists indoctrinate their children to believe the same things as them doesn’t mean these children “know” the truth… it means that they were properly indoctrinated. :(


    Seriously. This really isn’t difficult to do either. Children are highly impressionable and eager to please authority figures, particularly their parents. Give me a child for a long enough period of time and I can get them to say ANYTHING I want them to say. It doesn’t mean it’s the “truth.”

  • wendy-banks

    “Just because extremists indoctrinate their children to believe the same things as them doesn’t mean these children “know” the truth… it means that they were properly indoctrinated. :(“

    Sad isn’t it? Just say no to hate and shame filled religions. I try to learn about things before think I’m qualified to talk about them. I bought the gay lie crap the right -wing spews untill I learned more about them. I support their fight for rights now.

    If there is one good thing my life has taught me is that it’s not right to shove your beliefs down other’s throats. I’m pretty much ‘live and let live’  and want to be left alone untill people get in my face or try to take away my, or someome else’s rights. That totally pisses me off. I was taught to value the Consitution and by extention the Separation of Church and State. So that’s some of the core principles I go by.