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Not in the Mood for Mellowing

NARAL's new president plans an aggressive approach to the abortion debate


Earlier this month, NARAL Pro-Choice America held a banquet in the yawning basement ballroom of the Hilton Washington Hotel to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The occasion also marked the first public appearance its new president, 43-year-old Ilyse Hogue, and hinted at what the future of the organization, founded in 1969, might look like. Nancy Keenan, the sexagenarian outgoing president, gave up the stage to four twenty-somethings, two men and two women, who recounted friends' struggles to procure or pay for contraception. They were followed by a short film featuring a multicultural montage of forty young women. "The younger generation is going to determine what the next four years have in store," says the film's narrator. "It's not our mother's movement anymore. It's ours."

The night's focus on youth—and on issues other than abortion—could not have been more deliberate. Hogue takes the reins of NARAL, America's largest and oldest political action organization explicitly dedicated to abortion rights, at a moment when pro-choice leaders are worried about their influence in American politics. After the 2010 midterms put conservatives in control of half of the country's state houses, local legislatures passed more abortion restrictions in 2011 and 2012—like mandatory ultrasounds, waiting period, and parental consent laws—than in any other years in history. Rather than focusing on the old debate of whether life begins at conception, anti-abortion advocates quietly won over the public by pushing technical, innocuous-sounding laws framed as compassionate attempts to protect "the health of the mother" (when, in fact, the true aim is to close abortion clinics). Recent polls find that the public is growing ambivalent about an unfettered right to abortion—particularly the young. Americans aged 18-29, when asked whether they are "pro-choice" or "pro-life," choose neither answer at a higher rate (10 percent) than almost any other group. In a January survey, Gallup found that "the increase in public uncertainty about overturning Roe v. Wade is largely the result of a growing percentage of young adults aged 18 to 29 expressing no opinion." It's no wonder: Most Americans under 30 cannot name what Roe actually decided.

Some believe that the pro-choice establishment's failure to incorporate young people is partly to blame for these setbacks. After all, millennials tend to support reproductive rights; they just haven't been adequately mobilized.1 That's where Hogue comes in. "There's a joyous affect of having such a critical achievement culturally as our mothers and grandmothers did with Roe v. Wade," she said, speaking in her corner office near McPherson Square. But spending the next 40 years fighting only to preserve that right, she said, has created "a hamster wheel effect." Many young, typically prosperous women have moved on to different battles—like making fertility advances available to women who are not wealthy, and issues involving maternity and the workplace—while NARAL remained focused on abortion rights.

Hogue wants NARAL to marry these disparate legislative fights. "The entire movement needs to make sure that we are not only acknowledging where we've left some women behind, but as we move forward, making sure we don't repeat those mistakes," she said. "Yes, in states without access, women don't have the same choices as everyone else in the country. That needs to be rectified." But NARAL must recognize that the latest generation of women have grown up knowing they could access abortion if they ever needed it, she said. Hogue has few concrete plans yet of how this will happen—"I'm only in my first weeks here," she said, laughing—but she has an idea of what it will look like. "Intersectional. When the Komen news broke, young women, bloggers, and activists were out of the gates often before the institutional players. Same with Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh," she said. "The role now of NARAL is not to say, Hey, come join us. It's to say, Hey, you're already doing this great work, how can we help you and bring our resources to bear to leverage it?" 

Hogue, a Vassar-educated Texan raised by ACLU-card-carrying parents, was born the same year NARAL was founded, and as a result, is the only woman in charge of one of the old-guard pro-choice institutions who did not come of age in the decades when abortion was illegal. (Keenan vacated her seat for someone Hogue's age intentionally; as she explained in a May interview with the Washington Post, "It's time for a new leader to come in and, basically, be the person for the next 40 years of protecting reproductive choice." Most of her counterparts are in their sixties or seventies.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of her fictional heroes. Wearing patterned tights and knee-high boots, she looks the part of someone who could bring youth to a legacy organization—something that wouldn't be worth remarking upon if it weren't so rare. Erin Matson, a 32-year-old pro-choice organizer, said she's excited about NARAL's leadership change for two reasons: Hogue is a "caps-lock progressive" and she's actually of reproductive age, someone relatable for the pro-choice movement to put forward when the cable talk shows come calling.

Hogue also brings experience as an aggressive activist. She was director of political advocacy for when the Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, a period when the organization enforced progressive purity by running ads that eviscerated centrist Democrats. Before that, as the global finance campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, Hogue was successful at brokering deals with the likes of Citibank and Bank of America to stop their financing of deforestation—campaigns that included civil disobedience and public shaming, including story-high banners hung by trespassers from the roofs of Manhattan buildings. And Hogue was arrested several years earlier at the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle. "I am who I am. … I believe in speaking truth to power," she said. "If we win or lose has real implications on real women every day in this country, and we're never going to lose sight of that. So does that mean at different times we're going to do in-your-face public education campaigns? Yes. Absolutely. I hope so. That's what I know how to do best and I think that's part of why NARAL wanted me."

In other words, the unabashed progressivism of the old pro-choice establishment isn't going away. And while newer pro-choice organizations are broadening their goals—call it the reproductive justice movement—that aggressive liberalism is something decentralized pro-choicers have happily borrowed from their predecessors. Matson—who recently left the National Organization for Women, where she was one of their youngest-ever national officers, to pursue more grassroots activism—noted that outrage among the young protesters who descended on the Virginia State House over a proposal to require women to have a vaginal probe before getting an abortion.2 While Hogue looks to turn NARAL into a more inclusive organization while retaining its aggressive liberalism, other pro-choice leaders are preparing for a very different kind of sea change. "We live in an era where there are a lot of attempts to come out of the polarized, demonizing form of politics that has plagued us for the last decade," said Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice. She believes that the problem confronting the pro-choice movement is one of moderatism among voters on both sides of the issue. Many people who are not necessarily anti-choice, she said, are nevertheless not content to have their moral concerns about abortion dismissed, ad nauseum, with the argument, "It's a private matter." At Planned Parenthood Federation, leadership recently acknowledged the growing ambiguity surrounding abortion with a rebranding effort that rejects assertive politics, including the term "pro-choice." They, too, produced a video, which begins, "Most things in life aren't simple. And that includes abortion. It's personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it's not a black-and-white issue. So why do people try to label it like it is?"

If indeed voters have moderated on abortion, then selecting Hogue was a bold move for NARAL—a gamble that voters need to be snapped out of their moderation rather than appealed to with nuance. Kissling thinks it "would be good thing" if NARAL "were more acknowledging of the ambiguity that many people feel about abortion," adding, "I think an ability to communicate a clear message without having to attack everyone who disagrees with you has some possibility of enabling you to be heard by more people." That doesn't seem to be what Hogue has in mind; "toning it down" is not in her vocabulary. "I don't think anyone's in the mood for mellowing," she said. "I actually think people want some fun and some jazz."

  1. In a January op-ed, Keenan pleaded for twenty-somethings to get involved in the movement, writing that "it is crucial that even more pro-choice millennials continue to see the connection between the personal and the political because anti-choice activists are not slowing down."

  2. The bill that eventually passed required an ultrasound rather than a probe.