With Abortion Rights On The Brink, NARAL Splits Over New Direction

The abortion rights advocacy group plans to move away from an affiliate network, igniting a furor with its state partners.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s oldest abortion rights organization, is undergoing some soul-searching as it searches for a new president and prepares for the very real possibility that women’s reproductive rights will be severely restricted by the Supreme Court next year.

But the process is fracturing members of the NARAL community and bringing long-simmering grievances and frustrations out into the open.

In late June, NARAL Pro-Choice America released a new five-year “Strategic Roadmap,” a plan that its board of directors say will put it on a course to “become more proactive, more powerful, and more inclusive,” according to a copy of the document obtained by HuffPost.

At the center of its efforts will be a deeper commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of its work, from the organizational culture to its electoral and advocacy work.

But it’s the decision to get rid of its affiliate network that is causing the most conflict.

NARAL currently has 11 state affiliates, which are independent organizations tied to the national organization. They set their own agendas and raise their own funds ― with some money coming from national ― while working with the other state affiliates and the national group.

As the Strategic Roadmap lays out, NARAL intends to turn to a “chapter” model, meaning the state groups will lose their independence and become NARAL staffers. The move gives the national organization more control over strategy, communications and policies. But whether that’s a good thing is where the disagreement comes in.

The NARAL board argues that the new approach will make sure that the entire NARAL community is “aligned around the same strategic vision” and that members receive the same experience with the group, regardless of where one lives.

“We’re still going to lean in deeply and work in the states because we believe that that is one of the next frontiers of this work,” NARAL board member Kimberly Peeler-Allen said. “But we want to do it in a way that we are sure that we have a uniform message. We are allowing the folks on the ground to not get bogged down in the HR practices and payroll and all of those pieces and really focus on the work. And that’s what we see this reorganization is really doing.”

But the affiliates are furious. HuffPost first heard about the issue from a spokesperson and a lawyer representing the interests of all 11 affiliates. They said they weren’t meaningfully included in the decision and are being pushed out of the network at a time when state issues are more important than ever.

NARAL prides itself on its 2.5 million members and its ability to mobilize around reproductive rights. But the latest move risks alienating and driving away some of its key leaders doing on-the-ground work around the country.

“What is a real missed opportunity here is losing the networks that have those direct communications and direct input and boots on the ground,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of NARAL Missouri, adding, “Without that, we’re talking about a top-down political organization that isn’t a reflection of what’s happening on the ground and that shouldn’t be as responsive to what’s going to be the next fight.”

Preparing For A Monumental Change

The Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, is set to hear a case that many abortion rights advocates fear could overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, is set to hear a case that many abortion rights advocates fear could overturn Roe v. Wade.
Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

NARAL’s decision to shift away from its affiliate structure comes at a time when what is happening to abortion access in the states is going to get more attention than ever.

In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a Mississippi abortion case that has the potential to take away the constitutional right to an abortion guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. With a court controlled by six conservative justices, abortion access faces an existential threat.

Without Roe, abortion would be illegal in nearly half the states. And as The New York Times has noted, “Forty-one percent of women of childbearing age would see the nearest abortion clinic close, and the average distance they would have to travel to reach one would be 280 miles, up from 36 miles now.”

Of course, many of those fights are already happening. According to the Guttmacher Institute, state legislators have enacted 90 abortion restrictions in 2021, which is the highest number since the Supreme Court decided Roe in 1973. Last month, for example, advocates beat back a provision in Missouri that would have barred Medicaid coverage of certain forms of birth control and blocked payments to Planned Parenthood.

“This is poised to become a 50-front fight, and having those leaders on the ground who really do reflect their communities, who have those strong relationships in everything from the state legislature to the governor’s office ... that’s really how we get things done,” said Christel Allen, executive director of NARAL Oregon.

NARAL believes that what’s now needed is better communication and coordination between the state and federal levels. Its goal is to have a “single nationwide entity” by the end of 2023, according to its Strategic Roadmap.

“As the affiliate structure transitions ― where some may become part of NARAL while others transition to become active partners and allies, NARAL is determined to enter this next phase with the great care, respect, humility and humanity that the affiliate staff and affiliate Board leadership deserve,” the plan reads.

But so far, the affiliates say, they don’t feel like they have been treated with care or respect.

On June 29, the NARAL board sent the Strategic Roadmap to the affiliates. That same day, the two affiliate representatives to the board resigned in letters that were shared with HuffPost. Both Schwarz, from Missouri, and Rebecca Hart Holder, the executive director of the Massachusetts affiliate, complained of poor communication and a feeling that the affiliates were not meaningfully included in the process.

“Perhaps naively I believed if you just heard us, if we could earn your respect as individuals, despite decades of baggage that hamper the state-national relationship, maybe we could find the path forward that has eluded so many others,” Schwarz wrote. “It is clear to me now that the way forward was already set, and that empowering the leadership of grassroots leaders around the country was never the priority.”

Schwarz and Holder also wrote memos to NARAL leadership on June 7 and June 28, objecting to the direction the board was heading in regarding the affiliates, saying they experienced “active exclusion from the process” and asking for changes to the Strategic Roadmap, including more clarity about job security for affiliate staffers and guaranteed regional representation on the national board.

Leaders on both sides acknowledge that the relationship between the affiliates and national was often messy, frustrating and characterized by mistrust and misunderstandings.

The affiliates insist that the chapter model will not be as effective because the agenda will be controlled by national staffers who may not know the issues on the ground.

“I would point to what I think national has been doing, which is AstroTurf,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Ohio.

“We need to be close to the people we serve,” she added. “There’s no way that an organization in Washington can substitute with a chapter with people that they hire for even a short-term or a long-term stint. [They’re not] going to have those same decadeslong relationships and aren’t going to have that same understanding of what happened in the state legislature.”

Long-Simmering Tensions With State Affiliates

NARAL Pro-Choice America has put out a new five-year road map that includes a greater focus on diversity issues and a shift to a chapter model.
NARAL Pro-Choice America has put out a new five-year road map that includes a greater focus on diversity issues and a shift to a chapter model.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

NARAL isn’t the first or only national group to have tensions with its affiliates. People at other organizations with affiliate models described having to constantly work out delicate relationships over funding, strategy, priorities and communications.

NARAL staffers say that every affiliate was different, with some more productive or more confrontational or more professional than others. And the affiliates too acknowledge that some national staffers were helpful and willing to advocate for them.

But overall, the relationships seemed to have high levels of mistrust.

A major point of contention for the affiliates was in fundraising. They said donors were sometimes confused that when they gave to NARAL, it would not necessarily go to the state affiliate but rather to the national organization. Affiliates repeatedly brought up that they were frustrated there was no agreement in place where NARAL would share some of the funds it raised from in-state donors with the affiliates.

NARAL said that since 2016, it’s given $3.8 million to the affiliates, with $2.7 million in grants and $1.1 million websites and databases. Much of that ($1.2 million) has come in the past two years to help with dealing with COVID. For some of those years, NARAL had more affiliates than it has now, meaning the money was split up more. (NARAL’s annual report for 2020 shows revenue of about $25 million.)

“We have always provided affiliates with grants, some of which, pre-COVID, were restricted in nature. It’s our responsibility to ensure that resources are strategically going to simultaneously support state and federal issues at the same time and laddering up to an overarching strategy,” a spokesperson said.

The affiliates said they had asked for more help from national with the infrastructure around running an organization ― compliance and administration, for instance ― but never received meaningful assistance.

Peeler-Allen said that moving to a chapter model is meant to help with exactly that problem. NARAL national would take care of the administrative work, allowing the staff in the states to focus on policy and advocacy work.

And while the state affiliates acknowledge that they did occasionally have productive relationships with national on hot-button issues, they also felt like national would take credit for on-the-ground work driven by the affiliates.

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Virginia, said she believed that was the case in her state.

“It’s really been maddening [seeing] the credit that they have taken for those victories without sharing in the investment, in the planning and the implementation of those plans,” Keene said.

But a former NARAL staffer objected to this characterization. They, like several others in this piece, asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

“At national, what we would all try to do is lift up the good work that the affiliates were doing,” said the former staffer. “If someone’s doing really important work, or there was a big fight coming up in X state, we would work with them and give the affiliates support where it made sense. We’d follow their guidance while offering support on strategy and even financial help when possible.”

NARAL once had a department tasked with being the liaison to the affiliates. But sometime after Ilyse Hogue took over as president in 2013, she disbanded that department and shifted the responsibility to another team. Much of the work then fell on a more junior employee, who largely found herself stuck being the liaison between two sides that didn’t trust each other, according to a former NARAL staffer.

“They did a complete restructuring within the national office and it just ― we didn’t even know who to go to or who to talk to, and there was always sort of a wall there,” Keene said.

“Every single programmatic department interfaces with the affiliates on an ongoing basis, from communications to organizing to government relations to political to digital to research. We have a staff member who organizes and coordinates affiliate meetings and updates, but staff including department directors and executive-level staff interact and support affiliates directly,” a NARAL spokesperson said.

But staffers at NARAL also say they felt like some of the affiliates weren’t always interested in having productive conversations.

“There’s been a disconnect on the focus of the work and ultimately a failure to ladder-up to a national overarching strategy that can meet the threats advocates for reproductive freedom face. And given the threats, falling short just isn’t an option,” said a former staffer. “Change is hard and understandably can feel uncertain or challenging, but it was pretty clear this change was necessary to more effectively meet the moment, both at the national and at the state level where critical fights must be fought.”

Another former NARAL staffer said that in their experience, the affiliates were “treated totally as an afterthought ― always an afterthought, minimally, and sometimes even with contempt,” which made it harder to have effective and cordial relationships.

“I think the way they’re doing this ― I think a lot of people would have come to the same conclusion, but I think the way it’s been handled has lacked transparency and respect,” they added.

NARAL California is an affiliate that moved to a chapter, a financial decision when the group was struggling to keep the lights on. Amy Everitt, the former head of the group, took over in 2003, shortly after it transitioned. She said that while she recognized that the affiliates have fears about the new model, she believed they were misguided.

Moving to become a chapter, said Everitt, allowed her organization to “thrive,” build up membership and attract more donors. She acknowledged that she has to fight for resources from the national organization, but that it makes her focus her work even more.

“And yes, one of the challenges when you are a part of a national organization is you’ve got to make a really good case for what you want, and why you need it and why it should be resourced,” she said.

“Something isn’t working in the states because we’re losing really badly in the states,” Everitt added. “So I think it’s actually a long, long time coming to move into a different model of working in the states.”

“There was no transparency from them in this process. We would have no reason to believe that they would make Ohio a priority.”

- Kellie Copeland, NARAL Ohio

Affiliates are also concerned about what will happen to their staff, with some having as many as 10 or 12 people on staff. The three chapters are much smaller, with a director and maybe one other state-focused person located there. NARAL said that there are organizers working in all three regions where there are chapters as well, with “approximately 17 organizers at our peak last year, across our chapters and regions.” A NARAL spokesperson said they “recently ramped down work in that state and redirected our focus to other parts of the Midwest,” with the Iowa staffer moving to the national organizing team.

NARAL staffers and board members have insisted that the organization is not trying to get rid of the affiliates or kick them out of the NARAL family. They say they’re simply looking for a better working relationship.

“It is not necessarily the case that an affiliate would automatically become a chapter or would lose employees; our hope is to find a path forward that works for all parties, which is why the board set out a long and gradual transition timeline,” a NARAL spokesperson added.

Peeler-Allen said NARAL wants these affiliates to remain in the family and that conversations about their future will keep happening.

“There is space for them, and we want them, but we want to make sure that each affiliate has all the information that they need to make an informed decision about what’s best for their state, who are their members, for their staff,” she said. “We want to just continue to create the space and hold the space for everyone in the NARAL family to continue this really important work at this absolutely critical time.”

Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Ohio, said her group would not become a NARAL chapter.

“There was no transparency from them in this process,” she said. “We would have no reason to believe that they would make Ohio a priority. They have not been involved in our work. I have no reason to think that that would change.”

“The most critical part is that we’re going to do is stay together with our network and stay together with the state-based organizations that have been doing this work, like we have, for decades, in communities across the country and from the ground up,” Schwarz said.

Putting Diversity Front And Center

NARAL plans to put diversity front and center in its work moving forward.
NARAL plans to put diversity front and center in its work moving forward.
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

While the restructuring of NARAL has generated the most disagreement, at the heart of the Strategic Roadmap is the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Women of color are far more likely to get an abortion than white women, meaning they are far more affected by the restrictions put in place nationwide. But the national abortion rights movement has largely been led by white women.

That is a history that NARAL is promising to grapple with more fully over the next five years.

“We acknowledge that we are a legacy organization started mostly by white women and still largely led by white women, which has contributed to, and benefited from, white supremacy and structural racism,” the Strategic Roadmap states. “We understand now that we must actively work to dismantle these injustices in order to secure reproductive freedom for everybody.”

The organization plans to apply “a diversity lens” to all its electoral and advocacy work and promote DEI at all levels ― from its board members, to its staffing, to HR policies and its nationwide network. The board asserts that this is the first time in NARAL’s history that it’s undergone a process that views DEI as center to its work, rather than as an add-on.

“We have done and said things that were wrong and we’ve hurt people we care about,” the Roadmap adds. “We apologize for the harm we’ve caused, and we’re holding ourselves accountable to repair those harms in order to achieve reproductive freedom with equitable access to abortion care for every body.”

Specifically, NARAL says that going forward, it will seek to provide access to its donors for groups led by underrepresented communities. And not only will every NARAL-sponsored event include Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) representation, it will pay all BIPOC speakers honorariums. (NARAL clarified that the policy “doesn’t preclude compensating speakers who are white for their time and labor, but as a matter of policy, we ensure we offer to compensate ALL of our BIPOC speakers from outside the organization.”)

NARAL also plans to hire a top-level officer focused on equity and inclusion, and in its work, it will no longer center the experiences of cis, female, middle and upper-class white individuals to the exclusion of others.

Schwarz said that she and the other affiliate directors support the need for a greater focus on diversity. But she hopes that the work they do in the states will be a major part of the equation.

“We are looking at the possible fall of Roe next year, and the ripple effect it will have in our communities. But in a state like Missouri, that is already here,” she said. “We have one abortion clinic serving the entire state. ... And the communities most impacted are people in communities of color, low-income communities, adolescents, LGBTQ and folks with other identities that are already marginalized within the health care system.”

“It is so incredibly important to be able to fight proactive battles in coastal places where we can make those successes and have those wins,” she added. “But if we are not prioritizing the people most harmed, then we’re not doing our job.”

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