Roe V. Wade Turns 35

Thirty-five years ago this month, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in America. Nancy Keenan, of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says it's time to open a new chapter in the culture war over abortion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a Faith Matters conversation with the Reverend Floyd Flake. He's a prominent black Democrat who says it's time to stop talking so much about race. And as always on Friday, the Barbershop guys are in the house.

But first, an important milestone in one of this country's most divisive issues. Next Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

As in past years, thousands of abortion opponents are expected to demonstrate in Washington. Abortion rights advocates will be there too to stand up for their point of view. And over the three past decades, the debate over abortion has shaped up along pretty familiar lines. One side talks about rights, the other side talks about what is right. One side talks about the law, the other side talks about values.

Yesterday in a speech in Austin, Texas, Nancy Keenan, the president of one of the nation's prominent - most prominent abortion rights groups, NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that the abortion debate has been polarized in this way for far too long - that it's time to acknowledge that many people feel conflicted on the issue and that being pro-choice is a moral position.

Joining us to talk more about this from KUT in Austin is Nancy Keenan.

Thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): It's great to be with you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: I gave a few of the sort of talking points from your speech. You said the debate about abortion has gotten too distant from the lives of everyday people. That it is time to kind of move off of those hardened lines. What brought you to this conclusion?

Ms. KEENAN: Well, you know, it's been three years that I've been the president of NARAL Pro-Choice, and I think I saw coming from a state like Montana that people were tired of the divisiveness, tired of the tone of this debate. And so the speech yesterday was basically to start the conversation again and acknowledge that abortion is a complex issue for many people. But it should also remind them that the complexity of the issue only underscores why politicians shouldn't interfere in a woman's personal private medical decision.

MARTIN: You said that we need to acknowledge what we all know to be true today. A woman's right to choose is a morally complex issue. It's a lot less black and white than it's been made out to be. And when we don't acknowledge this complexity, it looks like we don't get it and don't have a moral compass of our own, quoting from your speech now. To whom is this speech aimed?

Ms. KEENAN: Well, I aim to, I think, Americans that we would call pro-choice but struggling. And they wrestle with the morality of this issue. They wrestle with their own conscience. They may conclude that abortion is not an option for them, but they also believe that it would be unacceptable to live in a country where politicians decide for them.

So this group of people in America, again, are very pro-choice, but they struggle with that complexity of the issue.

MARTIN: Is the issue here that you think that the leadership has not caught up with where really most people are? That this is a conversation that most people have had in their homes but somehow or another the leadership just hasn't reflected that point of view? And if that's case, why not, why haven't they?

Ms. KEENAN: Well, you know, we saw this play out in South Dakota when the people there actually took it upon themselves to overturn an abortion ban. And what happened in South Dakota is that the people had a conversation. So families sat at a table and debated and discussed and talked this through. They talked across the fences to their neighbors. They talked about it in their churches. And so it was an opportunity to have the conversation, turn down the shouting and the noise here, and actually realize it is complex, it is private, and it is best held in the hands of women who make this personal private decision.

MARTIN: You point out though, in the speech, that Roe is, quote, "a shell of its former self," that women - and again, these are your words - have been losing ground, losing rights, losing options, losing access.

There are new figures, for example, that show that the number of abortions being performed in this country are at a very low point, like 1.2 million. It's far lower, the lowest point in - what, some 20 years or so.

Some might argue that you're changing the language because of the movement, with the South Dakota referendum being a rare exception, is actually losing ground, and this is just a rebranding effort. What do you say to that?

Ms. KEENAN: No, absolutely not. You know, we have to look at what has happened since the passage of Roe. And since 1995 alone, there have been 550 laws on the books that again restrict access to abortion care. That tells us that those people that are elected to office are coming in, waking up every day, either trying to overturn Roe or trying to again take this personal private medical decision away from women.

And so when we see that kind of effort since 35 years ago, you wouldn't imagine that we would be here, that 550 new laws on the book that restrict women's access to abortion, and that's what we talk about when we say, you bet, women are losing ground, and it's time that we take back the moral high ground here. It was ours to begin with. This movement was started by ministers and it's time we reclaim that ground.

MARTIN: Let's look at it from another point of view. As I think we've been discussing, morality has been at the core of the reason that people oppose abortion, at least say that they do, or oppose abortion rights. If you see abortion as the moral tragedy of this century, that it's premeditated murder, that it is a moral stain upon the conscience of the nation in the way that some consider that they can make comparison to slavery as a stain upon the conscience of the country in earlier centuries, how can it be a moral choice?

Ms. KEENAN: Mm-hmm. Well, look, we know that people have differing views on this issue. There should be some common ground where we agree on prevention, that if we can prevent the unintended pregnancy in this country, we can reduce the need for abortion. At the same time, women are moral agents, and when they make this decision for their families, for themselves, as I have said often, women hear their God with their own two ears and they don't need politicians which God they should listen to.

So this is a moral decision for women. It does not come lightly. It does not come easily. And they themselves have a conscience and a moral compass that they follow, and again, listening to their God with their own ear and not a God that is imposed on them by politicians.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But again, how can it be a moral choice, especially when one considers that sort of technical advances, medical advances have made viability possible at earlier stages than ever before? Do you see my point? I mean, are you grappling with that question of moral complexity?

Ms. KEENAN: You know, technology provides information, but it does not give us or provide the decision-making. And again, I go back to the moral issue of women, and that they themselves have a moral compass. They have a conscience. They make this decision in the best interest of themselves. And it's not for somebody else to judge that.

Again, when we talk about Americans who - they themselves may be conflicted about the issue, that is fine. We recognize that confliction. But it is not then for them to impose their beliefs, either via the political arena or via themselves that they cannot impose their beliefs on this woman who in essence is making this decision and she has to live with the decision as she does in the best interest of herself and her family.

MARTIN: You point out that, in your speech, that you grew up in Montana - a devout Catholic, as you say with fish on Friday, confession on Saturday, Mass on Sunday and Catholic school on Monday. How do you reconcile your faith and your position on abortion?

Ms. KEENAN: You know, it is from that faith that I have come to the conclusion as well that as an elected official when I was serving in Montana, I represented women of all faiths, not just my own. And that it is an obligation to honor and respect that those women, each of themselves has their own God and they hear that God with their own two ears, or in some cases they don't. But the fact is, they hear their God and that is not a place of a politician or the government to impose the beliefs on these women.

And so for me, you know, being pro-choice is rooted, again, in that moral belief that I have that says women can make the decision and that they have that moral conscience and moral compass to do that, and it's in their best interest.

MARTIN: I still want to push you in a question of how you feel this speech and you personally as a leader of the movement are planning to change the tone of public discourse on this issue?

Ms. KEENAN: Mm-hmm. Well, I think a couple of things. One, again, you turn down the volume, you turn down the noise around this. You don't need to shout at people or call them names to have a conversation. And in the conversation, we should agree on some things. We should agree that if we could prevent the unintended pregnancy, we can reduce the need for abortion. So that means access to contraception, age-appropriate sex education. It means making sure that emergency contraception is available to women, especially who are survivors of rape and incest.

So, there's all sorts of ways we can prevent the unintended pregnancy. And at the same time, as I said, that the complexity of this issue underscores, underscores why politicians and the government shouldn't interfere in these most personal, private medical decisions.

MARTIN: You also call in your remarks for stopping, kind of, the demonizing of the other side. Are you committing your organization to that, just for perhaps for fundraising purposes, because, you know, demonizing works when it comes to fundraising and rallying, you know, the support of the base, as it were. So…

Ms. KEENAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …are you committing to stopping that tactic in your own work?

Ms. KEENAN: You know, we actually work with folks that are anti-choice, and I'll give you the example of Senator Harry Reid. And he is not on the same side of the issue as we are with regard to abortion care, but he has worked very closely with us on prevention first in the United States Congress. And so, we have been able to work with the other side again, on that common ground, which we would call preventing or prevention first and preventing unintended pregnancy. So, look, we will probably disagree on the fundamental issue of abortion care, but that doesn't mean that we can't find those areas we can have the conversation, and it doesn't mean that we can't have that conversation as a pro-choice majority, and actually say, it's time to reclaim the moral high ground here. It is time when this movement was started by ministers to help women. That it's time that we say, we too, are people of faith, we, too, are people with consciences. We, too, have a moral compass. We, too, believe that this is a moral choice for women. And we shouldn't back away from that.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Nancy, I just want - I'm sorry, very briefly I - very, very, very briefly, you just gave this speech last night. Any reaction so far?

Ms. KEENAN: So far, the reaction both here in Texas and across the country has been very, very positive.

MARTIN: From who?

Ms. KEENAN: Oh, from the folks that were there last night, and it was a wider range. Three generations of young people that were - the millennials, to the middle school moms and dads that are concerned about the issue of sex education and abstinence-only policies that are not telling their young people the truth; and then what I call my generation who were around pre-Roe, who I would call the menopausal militia, and who, we forever have stood to defend a woman's right to abortion care in this country.

MARTIN: Nancy Keenan is the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, known as the political arm of the abortion rights movement. She joined us from KUT in Austin, Texas. Nancy Keenan, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Ms. KEENAN: Thank you, Michel. I enjoyed it.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we hear from former congressman, the Reverend Floyd Flake. He says the Democratic Party needs to do more to bring white men back to the fold. Our listeners talk back and South Carolina. Yes, the primaries are coming up, but there's other stuff to do there.

Mr. CHAD PROSSER (Director, South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism): There are a number of significant sights, which really tell the story of enslaved Africans that came to South Carolina.

MARTIN: That's all coming up next on TELL ME MORE.

I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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