Illustration by Johanna Goodman
This week, House Republicans held a hearing that was more of a show trial of Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Firing questions at Richards, and then interrupting her answers, the members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee seemed intent on demonstrating their contempt for Richards, her organization, and the women it serves.
We’ve been here before. In 2012, the same House committee held hearings on birth control coverage. Planned Parenthood’s Facebook post on those hearings went viral: a photo of the all-male panel of conservative religious leaders testifying, and the caption, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
This week, the Republicans dropped their threat to shut down the entire federal government over the issue of Medicaid reimbursements that allow poor women to get health care at Planned Parenthood clinics. Back in 2012 Progressive Editor Ruth Conniff interviewed Cecile Richards about what’s behind the attacks on Planned Parenthood, and the backlash from young feminists who have rushed to support the group, and who, Richards says, are "totally mystified” by Republican attacks on women’s health.
An Interview With Cecile Richards
By Ruth Conniff
Posted June 2012
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was visiting the Washington, DC, Planned Parenthood office from the group’s headquarters in New York City, as the Republican War On Women exploded around her in the national news. Her voice was so hoarse she had to speak in a whisper, sipping chamomile tea at her desk as I bent forward to listen. Over the last several months she has kept up a grueling schedule, speaking out and defending Planned Parenthood against unprecedented attacks by the right, Republicans in Congress, and legislators in statehouses across the nation who have tried to make her organization Public Enemy Number One.
The House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood in April (the bill died in the Senate) and nine states have attempted to bar funding for the group (most of those measures have been blocked, so far, by the Obama Administration).
The effort to demonize Planned Parenthood has backfired dramatically, thanks, in part, to Richards’s savvy leadership. When the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings on birth control coverage, Planned Parenthood’s Facebook post went viral: a picture of the all-male panel of conservative religious leaders testifying, and the caption “What’s wrong with this picture?”
When the Susan G. Komen foundation announced its decision to pull funding for breast-cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood, citing controversy over birth control and abortion, Planned Parenthood gained millions of dollars from new donors and tens of thousands of new members—many of them young women who rushed to Planned Parenthood’s defense. That outpouring, and, ultimately, a reversal by Komen, left Planned Parenthood able to increase breast cancer screenings.
“The good news out of the Komen situation is that I do think we’ll be able to do more breast exams this year than we ever have in history,” Richards says.
And that’s not all. A whole generation of feminist activists has been energized by the attacks on Planned Parenthood and women’s health.
Rush Limbaugh’s tirade against Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, whom he called a “prostitute” and a “slut” for testifying in favor of birth control coverage, state efforts to curtail women’s insurance coverage, get rid of accurate sex education, and force women who seek abortions to undergo invasive and shaming procedures like Virginia’s infamous vaginal-probe ultrasound, have opened up huge gender gaps between Republicans associated with these policies and their Democratic opponents.
Cecile Richards grew up in a tight-knit progressive community in Dallas, Texas. The daughter of Texas Governor Ann Richards, she followed in the footsteps of her labor and civil-rights attorney father, David Richards, when she went to work organizing garment workers right after college.
She met her husband, AFL-CIO organizing director Kirk Adams, while organizing hotel workers in New Orleans. They raised three children, while working for various progressive and Democratic causes. Richards was deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, when Pelosi was House majority leader, before helping to found and lead America Votes, a coalition of organizations dedicated to building a permanent, progressive campaign infrastructure. Richards came to the ninety-six-year-old Planned Parenthood in 2006, and immediately set to work attracting young people, through social media campaigns, by developing a peer-to-peer youth leadership program, and by linking up with youth-friendly outreach programs like the “I have sex” YouTube series produced by young Planned Parenthood supporters, as well as the group’s trademark pink bus.
Richards points out a picture of a group of teens on the wall of her DC office. “Those are some of my friends,” she says. “They’re all amazing. And I think they really do represent the future. They’re totally mystified why politicians would be fighting about birth control now. The same way they don’t understand why they would be fighting about gay marriage.”
A ping-pong table and a replica of the pink bus sit in the lobby of Planned Parenthood’s DC office, which is buzzing with activity when I visit. Richards, looking glamorous as ever with her short, blonde hair and stylish suit, talks about the Republicans’ overreaching, her hopes for the future, and canoeing with Molly Ivins when she was a kid.
Q: After the attacks on Planned Parenthood around the country, and then the Susan G. Komen reversal and the surge in donations and new membership, where are you now? Where, on balance, does all of this leave women’s health and the level of service that you’re able to provide, compared with before the 2010 elections?
RICHARDS: It’s very uneven. The sad thing is, I was just in Texas last night, and we’ve had to close health centers along the Rio Grande border—centers that didn’t provide abortion services at all. They only provided cancer screenings and family planning, birth control. But because of Governor Perry deciding to make everything a political issue, he cut off all the public funding.
Planned Parenthood is still going to be around, but hundreds of thousands of women in Texas just lost care. We’re doing everything we can to maintain services for the women who count on us. But he’s made some decisions and the legislature has made some decisions that are going to be devastating for women. I talk to patients all over the state who count on Planned Parenthood not just for birth control—and this is really the ignorance of politicians, it’s crazy—they don’t just come to Planned Parenthood for birth control. That’s the only doctor visit they get all year.
We had a bus tour through Texas to try to educate people about what was happening. Our bus pulled into a motel late at night in Midland and the night clerk stopped our team and said, “I can’t believe that Planned Parenthood isn’t going to be around any more. That’s where I get my health care. I don’t have insurance.” And she told her story. It was a really tough story. But she couldn’t come to the rally the next day, so she made them write it down so they could tell the folks that were there.
That’s the untold story about Planned Parenthood the institution. It’s about millions of women who are counting on us for care. And if we’re gone, there’s no one else there. But Rick Perry seems to be pretty impervious to that information. And, frankly, it seems like he could care less. He said he’s going to find the money. So far he hasn’t and even if he does, the folks in West Texas have said that, even if he sends money out here, if we can’t go to Planned Parenthood, there’s no one to take women who are low-income or uninsured.
Q: Your background is in labor organizing. Do you see these social justice issues—labor and women’s health—as connected?
RICHARDS: I started out organizing garment workers on the Rio Grande border. Those are the same women that Rick Perry just threw off of health care. So I sort of feel like my whole life just came full circle. I’ve been incredibly blessed. My whole career has been getting to work with women and do what I could to help them fight for what they wanted and stand up for themselves, and to give them a better shot at a better future for themselves and their kids.
That’s what we did when I was in the labor movement. I organized hotel workers in New Orleans and janitors in Los Angeles and nursing home workers in East Texas.
I feel that Planned Parenthood is just another side of the same coin. The women who come to us are doing the very best they can to take responsibility for themselves and their health and their families.
None of it feels like a divergence. It feels right. I feel very fortunate to work with this organization, because literally you get to see every day the impact you can make with a young person who sometimes has nowhere else to go.
Q: Is this worst time you can remember in terms of national, political attacks on Planned Parenthood? And how peculiar is it to hear the whole national dialogue shift from the wedge issues like late-term abortion to birth control—does that surprise you at all?
RICHARDS: Yes. I think it’s shocking to us. It was incredible to see after the 2010 elections, which were really driven by the economy, the concerns about unemployment, about home foreclosures, that the U.S. House of Representatives did not a thing to address those concerns, and went immediately after women’s health issues and after Planned Parenthood.
We’d never seen that kind of aggressive and hostile action taken. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed in the U.S. Senate, that defended Planned Parenthood.
But the really tough thing is that in the 2010 elections you had legislatures elected that don’t really represent the interests of their states. Because I can tell you one thing: the 2010 election wasn’t about Planned Parenthood.
I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve been stunned by how the Republican Presidential primary has really been a race to the bottom on women’s health issues, with the candidates all trying to outdo each other about how bad they would be on women’s health.
It’s extraordinary to think that we are now debating birth control, which is used by 99 percent of women in this country who are sexually active. And we’re debating whether or not birth control should be available to women. In that sense, yes, we’ve hit a new low since the Griswold decision of 1963.
Q: Conservatives say the issue is not access to birth control, it’s religious freedom for pharmacists, or employers, or health care providers. What do you make of that?
RICHARDS: The question is, is it religious freedom of one person over another person? That isn’t religious freedom. When you have something as normative as birth control, which is absolutely accepted by the American people. It is a way of life that has absolutely transformed the ability of women and men to plan their families, finish college, support the kids that they have—it’s beyond me how the right to that basic health care is now going to get sidelined or prohibited because of one person’s religious views. And, frankly, it’s kind of easy for men to have religious issues about birth control because they don’t use it.
It’s frustrating to see pharmacists, most of whom have never used a birth control pill in their life, particularly in areas where there’s not a lot of options for women, say they’re not going to dispense birth control for women who need it. I just don’t understand it.
Q: It seems as though you have turned these attacks around. Especially with the Susan G. Komen decision not to give money to Planned Parenthood, what looked like a big blow turned out to be a huge rallying point. I’m curious what happened—did you see an opportunity with these attacks, that they were going so far beyond where people are?
RICHARDS: I don’t think we ever see opportunity in attacks. Unfortunately, in the last year at Planned Parenthood we’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time just making sure that the 3 million people who come to us for health care get it. And I do think in the process that millions of people have rallied to our side. And I think that’s a reflection of the fact that one in five women in this country has been to Planned Parenthood. So when we were under attack in the House of Representatives, women came out of the woodwork and became more than a million new activists and supporters. Half of them are young people, who are worried that birth control is under assault.
With the Komen situation, I just think maybe Planned Parenthood is the place where this is expressed, but women are sick and tired of their health care being used as a political issue. And boy, nowhere is that truer than in breast cancer. There’s not a woman in this country who has not been touched by it, either in her family or her friends or herself. And the thought that groups on the Right were using breast cancer now, threatening breast cancer services, for their political ends, was totally unthinkable. And that’s what I think you saw in those three days of the Komen event.
Q: You’ve made a big effort to reach out to young people.
RICHARDS: Yes. That’s true. The fastest growing population of people coming to Planned Parenthood now for services are young men. We do an enormous amount of STD testing and treatment. More and more across the country I see young men coming for birth control with their girlfriends or their wives.
We’ve been supporting a program to develop young leadership in Planned Parenthood now for the last five years, and it’s really been extraordinary. There are young people learning to work as peer educators in their home towns, and they really are experts on birth control and issues that face young people. But they’re also now some of our most incredible media spokespeople.
Young activists are fighting their state legislature to get sex education.
We were just with a bunch of them in Oregon. Our big goal in the work we’re doing in the next five years is to try to make this next generation the healthiest ever, and prevent unintended pregnancy among young people, and help them learn how to protect themselves from disease, and infection. I feel real positive about that.
It’s great to have an Administration that supports honest, comprehensive sex education for young people.
Q: It seems like you’re at the crossroads of these completely opposed cultural trends. I wonder if you’ve just decided it’s better to lean forward, to take a hip, pro-sex view that’s very current with young people in the face of the most retrograde set of righwinger politics that we’ve seen in the last thirty years. Do you think that’s where a majority of Americans are? They’ve accepted that sex is part of life and are OK with it?
RICHARDS: I think people have. And I think young people are influencing every day the way we talk about issues, the services we provide, the leadership we develop. And, yeah, look, I feel very positive about the opportunities ahead to make sexual and reproductive health mainstream in this country.
At Planned Parenthood we do it partly by providing 3 million folks with health care services each year. But increasingly we do it through providing information online. Being there for young people if they need to text or chat us about their questions.
One thing that’s so ironic about the politicization of all this is that so many young people come to Planned Parenthood because they can’t talk to their parents or they don’t have a teacher they trust. They just want to know things like, “Am I normal?” or “Is it weird to still be a virgin?” These are things we should be open to talking to kids about—that it’s OK, not everybody is having sex. Just because you want to learn about contraception or be informed—all the research shows that providing people with accurate information actually makes it less likely that they will become sexually active before they’re ready, and it’s more likely that they will actually use protection when they do have sex. I think that’s what we all want for our kids.
Q: So do you think we’re not going to see another generation of anti-women’s-health politicians? Or you think that’s here to stay?
RICHARDS: I think there will always be a kind of extreme minority, which right now, unfortunately, is dominating politics in the Republican party. It’s really a shame. We have so many Republican supporters at Planned Parenthood, and they are just totally dismayed that they feel like there’s no place in the Party for them.
It remains to be seen how the Republican Party sorts itself out. But women voters will be the majority this election. They always are. And I hope they will pay attention. We are encouraging them to pay attention. And if the last couple of months are any indication, women aren’t happy.
Q: What was it like growing up with your famous parents? How did their social justice work influence give you?
RICHARDS: They weren’t famous when I was growing up, so it was kind of easier. I grew up in Dallas, and my folks were involved in pretty much every social justice issue that came through Dallas, which was pretty much everything. The farmworkers’ movement, the civil rights movement, getting rid of the poll tax in Dallas, going and checking to see if the lettuce at the A&P had a union label or not—that was one of my mother’s favorite pastimes.
It wasn’t until later that my mom got involved in running for office. When I was a little older she ran [Roe v. Wade attorney] Sarah Weddington’s first campaign for statehouse. And then she ran herself, first for county commissioner, and then she became state treasurer and, of course, governor. But obviously they had an enormous influence on me. My dad was a civil rights lawyer. He defended conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. He really worked to try to equalize school funding in Texas for public schools, and create single-member districts so we could finally have some kind of diversity in both local elected office and the state legislature, work of which we were all very proud. All of that influenced me. He was also a labor attorney for a long time. And that was my first job out of college, working with the garment workers’ union.
In Texas, too, I think for progressives in Dallas at the time, they really banded together, and were always facing sort of incalculably impossible odds. Maybe that’s why I like the work that I do.
Q: Did you know Molly Ivins?
RICHARDS: Oh, I grew up with her. When we were kids, growing up in Austin, my folks became big canoers. There were a whole bunch of progressives who did. Molly was one of them. I guess it was kind of back in the days when you made your own fun. And weekends were spent camping out either at somebody’s farm or on a river my dad wanted to run. And as kids we hung around and listened to them tell stories and lies. Molly was obviously larger than life in every way. She was very much part of the fabric of Austin at that time.
As a young person it was wonderful to see women like Molly. She was irreverent and outrageous. She always had some terrible dog that was completely worthless that would be nosing around the campground looking for anything anyone might have dropped. I wouldn’t say she was the most agile canoer. Inevitably, some getting-Molly-out-of-the-river story came up.
But I think there was a time there in Texas, and probably still is, when progressives and progressive Democrats gathered—whether it was on those campouts or at my folks’ house or Ed Schultz’s beer garden, which was the watering hole for either folks who worked at the legislature or observed with dismay what was happening—and that was usually Molly.
Q: What keeps you going?
RICHARDS: With Planned Parenthood it’s absolutely getting to see every day our health centers—the women who both work there and the folks who come to see us.
Just yesterday I was at an official opening of a new health center in Addison, Texas, in the suburbs of Dallas—this at a moment at which Rick Perry is trying to put the final kibosh on Planned Parenthood. And yet they’ve opened this beautiful health center, full of supporters and patients and staff. It was, to me, a total sign of the future. This is where we are going: loud and proud and not in the shadows.
And the incredible thing there, too, I think is that the supporters who came yesterday were Republicans and independents and Democrats and older people and young people. If my mother was there she would say, “I hear America singing.” It was the total fabric of the country. And I do think that Planned Parenthood is the ultimate big tent. That’s why I have faith that despite the political ups and downs, we’ve been here for ninety-six years. We’re going to be here for another 100. And I’m enormously proud to be here for this part of it.