Wednesday, April 30, 2008

'Protect and elect': Keenanís cry

Gathering stirs the pot of womenís rights

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum resident Stephanie Perenchio, actress Amy Madigan and NARAL President Nancy Keenan discuss the initiative Prevention First at a luncheon last week. Photo by Dana DuGan

Montana native Nancy Keenan looked at the well-dressed women facing her in a sunny, open home north of Ketchum last week. Small vases of lilacs, roses, tulips and lilies covered the table where they sat. Luncheon plates were pushed aside and chairs had been turned towards her. And yet concern and a tangible intensity hovered over the pleasant surroundings.

Keenan, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, based in Washington, D.C., was speaking as one of two guests of honor at the home of Stephanie Perenchio. The other guest was actress Amy Madigan, an old friend of Perenchio's and a board member of NARAL.

"The progressive community has gotten very smart about supporting and working together," Keenan said. "The ultimate goal is to get our candidate elected."

The political leader in the pro-choice movement since 1969, NARAL preceded the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which ruled that a woman's constitutional right to privacy encompasses the right to choose abortion.

Keenan's fellow guests—about 20 Wood River Valley women—were engaging and educated but expressed shock at what she imparted that day.

"We're fighting in all 50 states," Keenan said. "We need to protect the people in office and elect other pro-choice candidates. Protect and elect."

For instance, in Missouri there are several so-called human rights initiatives in the state Legislature that are "100 percent anti-choice," Keenan said. She said one initiative would allow pharmacists to refuse to provide or dispense contraceptives in all or most circumstances, and would broaden the terms for abortion to include contraception.

In Florida, a bill passed the House this month that among other things has a mandatory delay on abortion and requires a woman to undergo seemingly unnecessary ultra-sounds and counseling. Keenan contended that the bill also restricts both young and lower-income women's access to abortion providers. News stories published on April 25 predicted that the bill's passage appeared unlikely in the state Senate. A similar bill passed the House in the state of Virginia this year. In Ohio, proposed legislation would ban abortion outright.

In Idaho, according to NARAL information, there is an "unconstitutional and unenforceable criminal ban on abortion." Idaho's murder and manslaughter laws define a human being as including "a human embryo or fetus." Kriss Bivins Cloyd, acting spokesperson at the Idaho Attorney General's Office, said her office had not prosecuted a case under the law but said she didn't know if it had ever been enforced at the county level.

Abortion is not a religious issue, Keenan said.

"I am a person of faith and I am pro-choice," she said. "I work closely with priests and other religious leaders, and we're talking about the moral complexity of the issue."

Ultimately, anti-choice activists want to legislate that "life begins at conception," Keenan said.

She said the ramifications are chilling.

"You are giving protection to a fertilized egg, giving it a constitutional status as you would to a person," Keenan said.

Hence, she said, the moral complexity arises. She said that if these initiatives become legal not only would abortion be illegal, but so would in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research and all contraception. She said women would flip back 38 years as second-class citizens with no control over their wombs, their futures or family planning.

"It's a form of methodology," Madigan said in her familiar scratchy voice. "In all these states they keep trying to attack women's rights to make their own decisions. They want to chip away at Roe v. Wade. It's not from some altruistic reasons."

Keenan's answer is simple: "If we can reduce unintended pregnancies, then we can reduce the need for abortions."

Through NARAL, Keenan helped shape Prevention First, a values-based initiative encouraging lawmakers to focus on commonsense ways to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion. For instance, the bill would ensure that women who survive sexual assault have access to emergency contraception.

"There is a common sense in Middle America that says prevention is the answer," Keenan said. "We need to talk about where we can agree instead of disagree."

And while much of it is a gender issue, as Madigan said, it's also a generational issue. The women at Perenchio's recalled back-alley abortions and sexual abuse, and feared for their own daughters.

"I got into this issue for access to abortion rights," Keenan said. "I'm a part of the menopausal militia. The millennials are the generation concerned with access to contraception and the 'morning-after' pill. Mothers of middle-school-age girls are concerned with the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS."

Keenan, a leading commentator on reproductive health issues, has appeared on "NBC Nightly News," "The Today Show," "The Brit Hume Report" on FOX, CNN and NPR. As well, she is routinely quoted in major newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and Newsweek.

"With just 40 more votes in the U.S. House, the Prevention First Act can be passed," Keenan said.

It is this rallying point that leads Keenan and Madigan to travel to such far-flung locals as Sun Valley to discuss the issues with women who can make their voices heard.

After all, women who attended the talk agreed, if Viagra and other similar drugs for men can be covered by insurance and available through Medicare, then so should contraception.

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