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Abortion Rights Group Strives for Youthful Image

One of the nation’s most prominent abortion rights groups is working to remake its image in response to concern that it may be overtaken by a growing cadre of young anti-abortion activists.

Its message: This is not your mother’s NARAL.

With Ilyse Hogue, a former senior staffer at Media Matters for America and, freshly installed as its president, NARAL Pro-Choice America is more outwardly embracing its alliance with Democrats instead of fighting to win support from what it says is an increasingly hostile Republican Party. At the same time, it is warning that its opponents are more tenacious than ever in an effort to harness the energy of young voters who supported President Barack Obama. Hogue, 43, declined to be interviewed for this story.

“When I first got to NARAL, we had a lot more Republicans,” said NARAL Policy Director Donna Crane, who has been with the group for more than a decade. “We lobbied a lot more [GOP] offices.”

Not a single congressional Republican attended last week’s NARAL dinner in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, organizers said.

The group was born nearly 44 years ago out of the early battle for abortion rights. Since then, it has worked to increase access to contraception and block congressional efforts to restrict abortions, often with the support of moderate Republicans.

But some worry the movement has lost the gusto of its early days — and its clout on Capitol Hill. NARAL Pro-Choice America, a politically active nonprofit, spent $1.7 million in the 2012 cycle, up from slightly more than $500,000 in 2010, but NARAL’s political action committee contributed just less than $750,000 to Democratic candidates in 2012, continuing a steady decline from 2004 when it spent $3 million. Hogue, well-known in liberal Washington circles for her social-media savvy and fundraising acumen, could help boost the group’s electoral presence. She succeeds Nancy Keenan, who retired after heading the group for eight years.

The group spends comparatively little lobbying Congress, reporting just $170,000 in expenditures last year.

NARAL leaders have not been shy about acknowledging an “intensity” gap, making it a major theme of last week’s event. In doing so, the group placed Mark Earley Jr., a 24-year-old anti-abortion activist from Virginia, at the center of an effort to fire up members.

The group hired the public affairs firm GMMB to conduct blind interviews with activists on both sides of the issue, then singled out the University of Richmond law student’s tape as the most passionate, said Samantha Gordon, a NARAL spokeswoman. It featured the interview during the dinner “to show that passion to our audience,” she said.

Earley didn’t know he had become the face of the enemy, or even that NARAL was behind the taping, when he was contacted by CQ Roll Call. He said he didn’t mind.

“I had a hunch that it was not for a pro-life organization; I basically just figured my message would be used badly,” he said. “It is good for everyone to know that there are a lot of young people who are very serious about wanting to protect mothers and children.”

NARAL’s opponents are similarly trying to project a more youthful image. The March for Life Education and Defense Fund, the group behind an annual march and anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., recently installed a younger, more media-friendly president, Jeanne Monahan, who succeeded 88-year-old Nellie Gray after she died last year.

The organization is preparing to extend its activities beyond its signature event and is considering hiring lobbyists, Monahan said. Monahan was the first full-time paid employee in the organization’s history. It has also brought on media consultants, including Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

Such anti-abortion organizations are emphasizing advances in ultrasound technology that allow mothers to see early images of a developing fetus. And, while the majority of supporters are religious, activists deliberately avoid references to faith in their rhetoric.

Advocates on both sides of the debate agree that young adults fighting abortion are much more engaged. “The youth aren’t the future of the pro-life movement, they are the pro-life movement,” said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, noting that the group’s executive vice president is under 30.

Whether that has any effect on legislation in Congress remains to be seen.

Even if the Republican-controlled House revisits legislation passed in the last Congress, including a series of bills intended to cut off government funding for Planned Parenthood, the Senate will most likely stop those measures. The major battle will occur over a provision in the 2010 health care law requiring employer-sponsored health care plans to cover contraception, including intrauterine devices and emergency birth control drugs that many religious employers equate with abortion. The Obama administration has offered a narrow exemption for religious institutions, but for many activists it’s not enough.

“The administration’s stance on this violates basic religious freedom,” Earley said. “I think the thing that captures the attention of my generation is the pursuit of universal human rights.”

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