Cecile Richards has social justice in her genetic code. As the daughter of the late Governor Ann Richards, and the president of Planned Parenthood since 2006, she knows about political wrangling and fighting for progressive values. She spoke with me by phone on a range of topics.
You have deep roots in Texas. How did your upbringing impact your passion for social justice?
It was a natural development. It was the 1960s, when everything was happening. My parents were involved in every movement: the women’s movement, civil rights movement, farm workers’ movement—that was just sort of what my parents did. We moved to Austin and my dad was involved in the opposition to the Vietnam War. I feel really blessed to come from a family that was committed to social justice and service.
What is the biggest challenge Planned Parenthood is facing?
We’re continuing to grow. Over this last year, as we’ve been in the crosshairs of some of the political leadership in Congress, I feel like it’s only increased support for what we do. We’ve had a million new members or activists join Planned Parenthood in the last year. Even in the polling, we see enormous support. In the last one I saw, 59 percent of Americans not only support Planned Parenthood but believe that we should be funded federally for what we do. We have some people in office, particularly in the House of Representatives, who seem to be dead set against women getting access to birth control. We’re living in a very strange time. I don’t think the country is strange; I think that, unfortunately, we’ve seen a real move to the right among people in Congress and in state legislatures.
Do you think that the level of discourse has become more ultrapartisan?
It’s very distressing to see the lack of respect for women and women’s
health care. For women, it isn’t a political issue. It’s ironic to see people trying to make birth control controversial when 99 percent of women in this country— if they are ever sexually active—use birth control. That’s a lack of understanding and a lack of respect for women. There has been a really ugly tone this last year. We need to get back to civility on a whole host of issues. Demonizing women or women’s need for health care isn’t going to get us any further as a society. I was shocked the other day when I read that Mr. Romney had said that he was going to get rid of Planned Parenthood if he was president because the country couldn’t afford it. That showed a lack of understanding of the cost in the country to taxpayers of unintended pregnancy. Investing in family planning and helping women and couples plan their families is fundamental to their health. Those kinds of comments are really counterproductive. I’d like to take the poli- tics out of these issues.
What is the number one misconception about Planned Parenthood?
One of the most important things that people have learned is that more than 90 percent of our services are for preventive care. We provide safe and legal abortion—and we’re proud to do that; it’s an important health care service for women—but we’re the biggest provider of family planning in the country. Last year, 2.2 million people received birth control from Planned Parenthood. That’s one of the other ironies in the current political environment: We do more to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortion that any organization in the country. Women and men need access to affordable, high quality preventive care, and that’s what we spend most of our time doing. All the political wrangling doesn’t do a thing to help women detect cancer early or help a young person keep from getting an STD.
Do you have a favorite place in Austin?
I grew up in Austin and it used to be—there were two places to go—we always went to Las Manitas for breakfast. Austin has exploded! It’s almost unrecogniz- able. My favorite place to hang out is the San Jose Hotel. I love hanging out by the pool there on a perfect evening and catching up with friends or relatives.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I am. Planned Parenthood has been around for 96 years, in good times and in bad. Women and, increasingly, men come to Planned Parenthood because they trust us. They trust us for care that they may not be able to get anywhere else. Last month alone, four million people came to Planned Parenthood online to get in- formation. The future is on our side. In terms of the attitudes in this country, this next generation absolutely does not understand the obsession of politicians with ending birth control or attacking the rights of gays and lesbians in America. I have faith in the next generation to get it right.