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An Abortion-Rights Advocate Talks About Millennials

Nancy Keenan sees an "intensity gap" in young people

The outgoing president of NARAL, the abortion-rights lobbying group, had a wide-ranging interview with Irin Carmon, an editor at Salon, that ended with an assessment of whether young people care about abortion. Are they apolitical? Not exactly, Nancy Keenan said. What they are is generally pro-choice, yet somewhat wimpy in their commitment -- suffering from something she called an "intensity gap."

Here's an excerpt from that interview:

You made some controversial comments in Newsweek about millennials being less pro-choice. Some younger feminists felt like you were saying that they didn’t exist or that they were less active. 

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I was not speaking about the young women who have committed their lives and dedicated enormous energy to this movement, men and women. I’m talking about that group of millennials out there under 30 who have not connected the personal to the political on this issue. They are a very large generation, there are about 76 million of them. They are pro-choice, but they don’t put the issue of protecting this decision at the top of their list. So there is an intensity gap. If you put five pro-choice millennials in a room, probably one of them would vote their pro-choice values as a very critical factor for them, but if you put five anti-choice millennials in a room, almost two of them would vote their anti-choice values [based on our research]. By 2020, the millennials will be about 40 percent of the voting population in this country.

Do you feel like this year you started to see that engagement from millennials?

Absolutely… [But] this generation has to also connect the relationship to their voting, their values. And I’m not sure that we’re all the way there. There’s a lot of work to be done on that front. It is not the No. 1 item on their list in terms of things to protect.

If abortion rights isn't Number One in the list of issues that matter most to young people, this could be at least partly because they don't feel their own right to choose as being at risk. But it could also be because young people are a distinctly diversified generation. They are more varied racially, politically, and economically than their predecessors, and maybe this makes them less likely to devote their full energy and commitment to any single issue, abortion rights or any other. They care about a lot of things -- climate change, tax reform, environmental sustainability, income inequality -- but, as the Occupy Wall Street movement supposedly showed, their political actions can be a bit unfocused. Whether this is something they will outgrow, or whether in fact it turns out to be exactly the multi-tasking facility they need in the always-connected world they've inherited, remains to be seen.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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