Pro-choice president talks with YES! Weekly

by Amy Kingsley

The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Nancy Keenan, stopped in Greensboro on Monday for a lunch to raise money for the state affiliate, Pro-Choice North Carolina. YES! Weekly spoke with Keenan before her speech about the Supreme Court, Verizon Wireless and why you should vote.

Amy Kingsley: Were you surprised when Verizon said they wouldn’t send NARAL’s text messages?

Nancy Keenan: Yes, because we’ve been working with other vendors like MCI, Sprint and AT&T, it was just going like clockwork and then Verizon denied it. Verizon had rejected our short code because their rules said that the issues we deal with, like issues about the war, were unsavory and controversial. So I wrote a letter to the president and CEO of Verizon laying out our case and saying this truly is about freedom of speech. We’re not spamming, we’re actually sending out text messages to people who had signed up. So all of our activists, we had about 20,000 activists, called on Verizon to change their policy and they were very quick to do exactly that.

AK: And did that show of support surprise you?

NK: Absolutely not. Here we were dealing with this freedom of speech here in our own country with regard with a corporation having the right to censor what was being said in a text message. That would be like AOL saying you couldn’t send an e-mail, or it’s like paying for phone service and not being able to talk on your phone unless you only want to talk about certain issues.

AK: So I’m interested in your background and how you became interested in reproductive rights issues and working at NARAL.

NK: I’m from Montana, born and raised. I was a state legislator for three terms, and then I was the state superintendent of schools. That was in the early eighties, so even though Roe had just passed we weren’t seeing the attacks on Roe in the early eighties. I spoke at a rally, a pro-choice rally, with four of my colleagues, all of us Catholic, all of us pro-choice, three men, two women. And the Catholic bishop called the two women to talk to us. So we were kind of publicly scolded. I told the bishop he had to come see me at the capitol. The first thing he said to me was “I know your mother.” And I said, “well, she’s pro-choice, too.” He told me that, being an elected official, I had an obligation to advance the Catholic position on abortion. And basically I thanked him and said we were going to have to respectfully disagree, that he could dictate in the halls of his cathedral but he could not dictate in the halls of the capitol because we represent all women, and women of all faiths.

AK: Is this an issue you’ve always felt strongly about?

NK: I’m a firm believer that this issue is between a woman, her doctor, her family and her God. Women hear their God with their own two ears, and no government should be telling them what they should do.

AK: And are you still a spiritual person? Do you still attend the Catholic Church?

NK: On occasion, but no, I cannot say that. When my mother was alive I was because I would go to church with her a lot. But yeah, I was born and raised Catholic; I went to Catholic schools.

AK: Where does Roe v. Wade stand today?

NK: It’s very close to being overturned. We have the beginning of that willingness by the Supreme Court to overturn precedent and also possibly overturn Roe v. Wade.

AK: What can voters do?

NK: This is a nonpartisan issue, and this should not be an issue that falls along party lines. It is about a tradition in the Republican Party that government doesn’t belong in personal, private issues. And if you really believe in that privacy, that issue, it’s about not letting people into our medical records or decisions. It’s really not a party issue, it’s an issue around freedom and privacy.

AK: How are states attacking Roe v. Wade?

NK: We’ve seen everything from 24-hour bans, which make women in a rural state like Montana or North Carolina travel hundreds of miles to access services or even contraception. When I came in we tried to find common ground on this issue. We said, look, you should be able to prevent the unintended pregnancy and also prevent the abortion. So let’s make contraceptives available to women, especially women who’ve been raped. We should tell young people the truth, and give them sex education that is medically accurate. Values should be taught at home, and the facts should be taught at school.

AK: And what new challenges have you seen? How has the landscape changed?

NK: Well, we have a pro-choice majority in Congress, but it is not a working pro-choice majority. But we haven’t seen as many attacks to undermine Roe. The anti-choice legislation has declined a little bit, but we still don’t have to votes to advance a proactive agenda or a prevention agenda.

AK: And what about the current slate of presidential candidates?

NK: Well, on the Democratic side they are all pro-choice. And on the Republican side, all of them are anti-choice and we’re still trying to figure Mr. Giuliani out. There has been a change in his position since he’s been running for president.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at