National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL)

This is the longest-running formal organization in the United States framed specifically with reference to abortion policy. It was originally formed in 1969 as the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws by Illinois physician Caroline Rulon ‘‘Lonny’’ Myers, head of the first U.S. organization for repeal of the national abortion laws, the Illinois Citizens for the Medical Control of Abortion (ICMCA), and New York Democratic activist Lawrence (Larry) Lader. They had become acquainted through the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA). NARAL was born at a national conference sponsored by the ASA in 1969 to consider the question of abortion law repeal. The conference itself responded to recent events, including the Supreme Court decision of Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), which enshrined a ‘‘right to privacy’’ for married couples in contraceptive decision making, the constitutional basis of which appealed to some lawyers as a basis for abortion law repeal. Similarly, certain states, including New York, were then considering model legislation to repeal the stateby- state abortion prohibitions. NARAL’s first steering committee included physicians such as Bernard Nathanson and Lonny Myers; political and prochoice activists Larry Lader, Ruth Proskauer Smith, and Ruth Cusack; New York politician Percy Sutton; philanthropist Stewart Mott; and the first president of the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan. From 1968 to 1973, NARAL focused both on getting repeal legislation passed through numerous legislatures but also in setting up the conditions for test cases challenging existing abortion prohibitions. These actions included working with Dr. Alan Guttmacher and Roy Lucas, chair of NARAL’s Legal Committee, to get legal abortion clinics set up in New York and other states. In these litigation efforts, it worked mainly with the American Civil Liberties Union. Ultimately, NARAL became the central national umbrella lobby group for abortion rights.

Some have noted that NARAL in its first iteration worked frame its existence based on women’s rights and their need to have control over their reproductive lives. This contrasts with the early ‘‘population control’’ ethos of other parts of the contraception/abortion rights movement such as Planned Parenthood. On the other hand, at a certain point even the women’s rights frame did not go far enough for some activists such as Lucinda Cisler who wished to see NARAL also advocate for taking control of abortion out of physicians’ hands.

While NARAL was active in creating the conditions for and ensuring litigation of state abortion prohibitions, it was not active in the Texas case that ultimately brought about the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade (1973) ruling. It was thus in a somewhat reactive mode when the sweeping decision was announced. The association kept the same acronym but changed its name to the National Abortion Rights Action League, reflecting an emphasis on keeping abortion legal. One of NARAL’s early strategic foci from 1973 onward, working with Planned Parenthood, was to work to make and keep abortion procedures accessible to all, including ensuring that trained physicians performed the surgery at reasonable fees. It also worked with Planned Parenthood to teach interested clinic operators how to set up safe, efficient clinics such as those in New York that had been legalized in 1971. In 1973, NARAL set up a lobbying office in Washington to convey its presence and be able to respond instantly to congressional actions.

By the mid-1970s, it was clear that anti-abortion forces were going to use both state and national staging grounds to try to change the effects of Roe. In 1975, NARAL moved its head office from New York to Washington, D.C., and in 1977 created a political action committee to contribute to campaigns. NARAL became involved in working to get Congress to defeat the Hyde Amendment of 1976 (prior to which one-third of all abortions in the United States were under Medicaid, that is, publicly funded). The strategy was to try to retain pro-choice support in Congress by showing how a ‘‘divide and conquer’’ strategy would lead to the situation where abortion was a constitutional right, but in practical terms not equally available to all. By the mid-1970s, NARAL was working to institutionalize itself as a leader in the pro-choice movement. In addition to establishing a political action committee (PAC), it began a highly successful direct-mail strategy to increase its membership and to strengthen its base in the states.

NARAL kept much of the same thematic emphasis throughout the 1980s, working to keep abortion rights in the public eye as an urgent issue that could be severely curtailed by one congressional vote or Court decision. To this end, it became involved in trying to retain congressional pro-choice support and to ‘‘wake up’’ the U.S. public as to the potential harm to be wrought to Roe when the Supreme Court announced it would hear a challenge to the Missouri statutes. In advance of the Webster decision of 1989 (Webster v. Reproductive Health Services), NARAL had a press conference on the day that the Supreme Court announced its intent to grant review to the Missouri case and announced ‘‘a campaign to get one million Americans to sign a pledge to work to support Roe.’’ By this point, indeed by the mid-1980s, NARAL was able to play a central role in coordinating the national pro-choice coalition. At the same time, outside of the highly publicized national events, NARAL was also working in carefully targeted areas to undo anti-abortion lobbying successes, primarily at state and city levels.

Most recently, reflecting a desire to broaden its presence in various areas of reproductive policy, NARAL changed its name in 2003 to ‘‘NARAL Pro-Choice America.’’ It recently hired a new president after the long tenure of activist Kate Michelman. The new president, Nancy Keenan, was a former Montana state legislator and superintendent of Education. As she said on the NARAL website, ‘‘I am excited to build the strength of our powerful grassroots presence across the country.’’ It was clear that the new president brought a strong knowledge of state political processes to her appointment. Similarly, according to its website, as of this writing, NARAL counted ‘‘nearly 400,000 members and supporters nationwide,’’ making it both the largest pro-choice organization in the United States but also one of the largest feminist organizations as well.

MELISSA HAUSSMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Garrow, David. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Gerber Fried, Marlene, ed. From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
  • Haussman, Melissa. Abortion Politics in North America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005.
  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Tribe, Laurence H. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
  • Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)

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