HELENA - Back home in Montana last week, Nancy Keenan is focusing the attention of the nation's leading abortion rights advocacy group on the millennial generation - those voters under age 30.
It's the largest and most diverse generation in U.S. history and will be critical in protecting a woman's right to abortion in the coming decades, says Keenan, who since 2004 has been president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Keenan calls the under-30's "the next wave."
"When we think of the future, we have to engage that generation," Keenan said in an interview. "It can no longer just be on the shoulders of the baby boom generation."
This emphasis on the millennials is not a one- or two-year effort, Keenan said, but part of a long-term strategy. The goal is twofold: to ensure that reproductive rights issues are relevant in millennials' lives, and that those under 30 make the connection how the political process affects their ability to make what Keenan called "private health decisions and access the services they need."
She chose her native state for the kickoff of NARAL's multistate Vision to Win Tour, which runs through the end of September. This leg of the trip took her to Helena, Livingston and Missoula. A key part the entire tour is meetings with what she calls "the millennials."
Keenan, 58, has traveled Montana's highways many times before as state superintendent of public instruction from 1989 to 2000. The former Anaconda teacher earlier served six years in the state House. In 2000, Keenan lost a close race to Republican Denny Rehberg for the state's open congressional seat.
Polling done for NARAL in January found that "the younger people are solidly pro-choice, though there's more intensity among anti-choice young people than pro-choice young people," concluded the firm Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner Research.
Or as Keenan put it, "The other side's intensity is so off the charts."
However, Keenan emphasized there's a great base of activists among millennials who strongly support abortion rights on which to build.
This intensity gap exists among younger voters who aren't campaign volunteers and activists, but who will play important roles in elections, she said.
Keenan said she knows that many young women and men in Montana are actively engaged in efforts to protect abortion rights. In fact, she said the entire staff of NARAL's Montana chapter are millennials.
Expanding that group is critical for abortion-rights issues, she said.
Baby boomers like her well remember the national and state battles fought in the 1960s and early 1970s to legalize abortion and make birth control widely available, Keenan said.
"I was in college before Roe v. Wade," Keenan said, referring to the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in certain instances. "Our stories don't resonate with the millennials. It's Roe v. What?"
As for Montana, NARAL gives this state a grade of A-minus in protecting a woman's right to obtain an abortion, Keenan said, in part because of the state's strong constitutional right to privacy.
In the 2009 Legislature, the Montana NARAL chapter and its allies fought to defeat all eight bills aimed at banning or restricting abortion or measures affecting access to contraceptives and sex education. Allyson Hagen, who heads the Montana NARAL affiliate, said the sheer number of bills NARAL had to oppose was the most in the 20 years it has kept track.
In recent weeks, backers of a so-called "personhood" constitutional amendment, which effectively would ban abortion in Montana, failed to obtain enough signatures for it to appear on the November ballot. A similar effort failed at the Legislature.
"It's always a battle," Keenan said.
And it's also always a battle for groups on the other side of the abortion issue.
Gregg Trude, executive director of Right to Life of Montana, said polling done by his national group concludes the opposite of what NARAL's poll does.
"I know as of right now, the younger generations are more pro-life than they've ever been," he said.
His group opposed the proposed "personhood" amendment.
However, he said Right to Life of Montana is looking at proposed legislation in 2011 that would require women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound first.
"With today's technology, people have an opportunity to see level four ultrasounds - three dimensions plus sound," he said.
Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 447-4066. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.