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Interview 6.2012_Interview 12.2005x 4/25/12 10:42 AM Page 33
T H E P R O G R E S S I V E I N T E RV I E W
by Ruth Conniff
s the war on women exploded in the national news, Cecile
Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation
of America, was visiting the group’s Washington, D.C., office.
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, Richards has kept up a grueling schedule,
speaking out and defending Planned Parenthood against
unprecedented attacks by the right, Mitt Romney, 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 this
Congress (the bill died in the Senate), and nine states have attempted to bar
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.
Interview 6.2012_Interview 12.2005x 4/25/12 10:42 AM Page 34
funding for the group (most of those measures have
been blocked, so far, by federal courts).
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 photo of the all-male panel of
conservative religious leaders testifying, and the caption “What’s wrong with this picture?”
When Susan G. Komen for the Cure 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.
Cecile Richards grew up in a tight-knit progressive
community in 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 campaigning for 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 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 youthfriendly outreach programs like the “I have sex”
YouTube series produced by young Planned Parenthood supporters.
Richards points out a picture of a group of teens
on the wall of her D.C. 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
A ping-pong table and a replica of the pink bus sit
in the lobby of Planned Parenthood’s D.C. 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’ overreach, her hopes for the future, and canoeing with
Molly Ivins when she was a kid.
After the attacks on Planned Parenthood around the country, and then the
backlash, where, on balance, does all
of this leave women’s health?
Cecile 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.
So hundreds of thousands of women in Texas just
lost care. 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
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 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.
Q: Is this the worst time you can remember in
terms of the attacks on Planned Parenthood?
And how peculiar is it to hear the whole national dialogue shift from 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
Interview 6.2012_Interview 12.2005x 4/25/12 10:42 AM Page 35
U.S. House of Representatives did not do 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.
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
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 1965.
Q: Conservatives say the issue is not access to
birth control, it’s religious freedom for pharmacists, employers, and 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 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 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
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
“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
Interview 6.2012_Interview 12.2005x 4/25/12 10:42 AM Page 36
time just making sure that the three million people
who come to us for health care get it. I do think in
the process that millions of people have rallied to our
side. 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, 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 and threatening breast
cancer services for their political ends was totally
Q: You’ve made a big effort to reach out to young
Richards: Yes. That’s true. 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 hometowns, 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 legislatures
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 decided it’s better to take a hip, pro-sex
view that’s very current with young people in the
face of the most retrograde set of rightwing 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
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 three 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. 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
do 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
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: 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 doing what I
could to help them fight for what they wanted and
stand up for themselves, 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
Interview 6.2012_Interview 12.2005x 4/25/12 10:42 AM Page 37
janitors in Los Angeles and nursing home workers in
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: What was it like growing up with your famous
Richards: They weren’t famous when I was growing
up, so it was kind of easier. My folks were involved in
pretty much every social justice issue that came
through Dallas, which was 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—
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. All of
that influenced me.
Q: Did you know Molly Ivins?
Richards: Oh, I grew up with her. When we were
kids, 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, nosing around the campground looking
for anything anyone might have dropped. I wouldn’t
“As a young person,
it was wonderful to
see women like Molly
Ivins. She was
outrageous. But I
wouldn’t say she was
the most agile canoer.”
say she was the most agile canoer. Inevitably, some
getting-Molly-out-of-the-river story came up.
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 the same moment 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 sign of the future. This is where we are going: loud
and proud and not in the shadows.
And the other incredible thing was that the supporters who came yesterday were Republicans and Independents and Democrats and older people and young people. If my mother had been there, she would have said,
“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. 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.