The luncheon began on a festive note, with emcee Susan Saint James Ebersol (the Kate and Allie star who married NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol) inviting us to "celebrate the first year of a pro-choice White House!"
We applauded, of course, smiling happily over our poached chicken. Chocolate mousse and a tower of petit fours was set out on each table, and wine flowed freely (at lunch! on a weekday!).
"Remember this luncheon last year, when we were so nervous?" Saint James grinned. How far we've come, we were all thinking: from Dubya to a Nobel Laureate!
We were gathered at the swanky Cipriani's on 42nd Street in Manhattan for the annual National Power of Choice Luncheon, celebrating 40 years of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Certainly the occasion should have been festive ... but it wasn't.
As speakers took their turns at the podium, we were cautioned over and over that anti-choice members of Congress are using health care reform as an opportunity to restrict women's access to reproductive health services.
The Special Guest Speaker was Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, who mentioned that, unbelievably, some health insurers consider pregnancy a "preexisting condition." She had come from the White House not just to assure us that Obama "remains firmly pro-choice," but to note pointedly that "change does not come from the top down, but from the bottom up."
"Anti-choice lawmakers want an abortion ban in the new system," NARAL President Nancy Keenan warned us, and "we still don't have a pro-choice working majority." Keenan virtually apologized for casting a pall on our day; "It's enough to ruin your lunch," she said. And it was.
But NARAL is right to rattle our nerves. Nineteen states have anti-choice legislatures while only 12 states and the District of Columbia have pro-choice legislatures. In the U.S. House, there are 205 anti-choice congressmen compared to 185 pro-choice congressmen. In the Senate, there's an anti-choice majority too. This is all too easily forgotten when we're still slaphappy about getting Obama in the White House.
Less than three weeks ago, the Pew Research Center announced that support for legal abortion has slipped in 2009. Since Obama became president, the number of people who support legal abortion has fallen from 54% to 47%. "Supporters of legalized abortion may have grown complacent," wrote Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, covering a trend that has received much too little coverage.
At the same time there is this growing complacency, there is a growing generation of youngsters taking reproductive rights for granted. It's not their fault; they're just far removed from history. "It's like 'Roe versus what'?" explained Keenan. We need to engage this new generation, she said, "to ensure they feel as passionately about protecting choice as they do about climate change."
Dana Sandberg, in her late 20's, is co-leading NARAL's Future Direction Committee. "Our experiences are different from our mothers and grandmothers, so the conversation about choice starts in a different place than it did 20 or 40 years ago," she admitted to me. "But the ability to make our own personal decisions is a universal value that transcends generations -- and it is our job to make sure our peers know that there are forces working to take these decisions out of our hands."
After the luncheon, I asked Keenan whether she was worried. "The complacency concerns me," she said. "It's like, 'Oh we're safe. We can take a breather.' The fact is the other side never takes a breather."
While NARAL is in good hands, our reproductive rights aren't so lucky. There is no guarantee abortion will remain legal as health care in this country is reformed. And remember that pro-choice doesn't mean pro-abortion, it just means pro-choice.