Stronger than Ever: Cecile Richards on the 100-Year Fight for Reproductive Care

In honor of Planned Parenthood's centennial, the organization's president reflects on all the group has accomplished in the past century—and what we're still working to achieve.

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Oct 16 2016, 12:40pm

Photos courtesy of Planned Parenthood

In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100-year anniversary, we're taking an in-depth look at the history and future of reproductive rights. Read more of our coverage here.

The morning after the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Cecile Richards was using the language of athletic training, or battle. "I was incredibly proud of Secretary Clinton for enduring that debate," Richards told me over the phone. "The fact that she had to be put through that—it just shows me once again why she's ready to be president of the United States."

Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, is no stranger to endurance tests. Although she has been on the road advocating for Hillary Clinton and the pro-women policies she represents, in some ways this year's ridiculous presidential election has felt like but one of many hurdles in a years-long conservative campaign against the 100-year-old nonprofit health care provider. She remembers waking up after the midterm elections in 2010—when "the Tea Party took over the House of Representatives"—and understanding that a something had dramatically changed.

"No one could have anticipated that the first thing out of the gate of the new Congress—led by Congressman Mike Pence—would be to completely defund Planned Parenthood. It wasn't an attack on abortion access. It was literally saying to women on Medicaid, 'You can no longer go to the provider of your choice.'" From there, the attacks on the organization—from lawmakers pushing needlessly onerous restrictions on abortion clinics to the Center for Medical Progress's ludicrous series of highly misleading "sting" videos accusing Planned Parenthood of "us[ing] partial-birth abortions to sell baby parts"—have proliferated.

Read more: Looking Back on a Historic Year for Abortion Rights

Richards has also been thinking a lot about her mother, the Texas governor Ann Richards. Remembered as a "smart and sassy" feminist who famously quipped of George H.W. Bush that he was "born with a silver foot in his mouth," Ann Richards was a trailblazer for women in politics, with measurable accomplishments in office. Yet Cecile Richards remembers her mother's campaign for governor as an offensively lopsided race that has striking parallels to the election today. "She was running against someone who had never been in public office, who had never done anything as a public servant—a businessman who didn't pay taxes and made jokes about rape. A bigot," Richards told me, "and she barely beat him."

But while the political climate has been, in her words, "discouraging," Richards remains inexhaustible. "Some folks ask, 'What would your mom say [about the election]?'" Richards says. "She would say that it's always going to be hard, especially with a woman president, and that's why it's so important. Get out there and register some more voters." That seems to be Richards' attitude as well: We spoke while she was in a car on her way to Tampa, Florida—she had spent the night before at an event in Gainesville "with a bunch of screaming, fanatical reproductive rights supporters"—and her voice showed only signs of confidence, and a slight Waco twang.

Part of Richards's bold, uncompromising reputation comes from the way she carries herself: She always appears smiling, accessible, and stylish—and then administers a damning condemnation of the "game of political aggression" conservative lawmakers have attempted to play with women's reproductive rights. There's a great photo of her in which she is standing on a soapbox in the snow in front of the Supreme Court, wearing a miniskirt and knee-high boots as she addresses a crowd during the 2014 arguments over the mandate for contraception in the Affordable Care Act. In other words, not only is she uncompromising on behalf of women's rights, but she is also uncompromisingly a woman.

Before coming to Planned Parenthood in 2006, Richards began her career as a labor organizer in California, Louisiana, and Texas. After that, she founded a coalition of grassroots voter participation and education organizations called America Votes and was the deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi, who described Richards as "politically astute," "a wonderful communicator," and "a great administrator."

"She could be the president," Pelosi added.

Currently, Richards wears two hats: As the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), she heads up a national organization dedicated to providing affordable, quality reproductive and sexual health care to 2.5 million men and women in approximately 650 health centers across the United States each year. (Worldwide, the impact of PPFA, from its online educational resources to its best-in-class health care services, jumps to nearly five million people.) As the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, she oversees the not-for-profit, nonpartisan political arm of the organization that concentrates on advocacy and grassroots organizing for policies that support women's health. Nevertheless, although Planned Parenthood has become the symbol of a viciously partisan political struggle—and although in 2015 she had to testify before Congress to defend the organization against absurd conservative accusations that it profited from the sale of fetal tissue—Richards doesn't necessarily see her job as a political one.

"I think that what makes the organization so incredibly powerful is that we are a health care provider and educator for millions of people every year, not only in the US but around the globe, and we are best in class when it comes to reproductive health care," she said. "On the other side, we are a movement, which is not about politics but about organizing and advocating to change the world. Certainly, who's in office has a profound effect on our ability to deliver health care and to provide education. But I believe that people in office are only as good as we force them to be or get them to be."

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Such nuanced optimism is rare in public figures, but it's not unfounded: In the wake of the attacks on Planned Parenthood, support and fundraising for the organization have both skyrocketed; now, Richards notes, PPFA's nine million supporters are equivalent to "about 1.5 times the membership of the NRA."

"To be a movement, you need to have people moving," Richards told me of the process of bringing Planned Parenthood through the mire and into the 21st century. "That's a challenge, but it is one that has made us so much stronger and, frankly, more closely knit. I have never been prouder to be associated with an organization. Part of the excitement of getting through this election and working with the first woman president is that we could actually bring true health care equity into being."