On a recent visit to Seattle, Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood called Washington state the “tip of the spear” for reproductive rights and revealed what’s given her hope since her five-hour Congressional grilling last fall.
It just never ends for women, which means it never ends for Cecile Richards.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund president was in Seattle recently, preparing to speak to a packed room of supporters at the annual luncheon of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii.
In another room, in another city, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump was telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “there has to be some sort of punishment” for women who have abortions.
So Richards went from being introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell as “a rock” to being thanked and cheered and selfied until her face hurt — and then into defense mode.
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“@realDonaldTrump is vocalizing the motivations of every politician who votes to restrict access to abortion,” Richards tweeted. “It’s about controlling women.”
Not long after, another tweet: “This is a man who genuinely does not care about the health & safety of women — only about his political ambitions.”
Within 24 hours, Planned Parenthood would launch #WontBePunished, and Trump would be backpedaling wildly.
And so it goes.
Richards, 58, has been at Planned Parenthood for a decade now, but much of America didn’t know her until last September, when she underwent five hours of often contentious exchanges with members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Richards remained calmwhile she was interrupted, condescended to, challenged about her salary, questioned about Planned Parenthood’s services (family planning, cancer screenings, preventive care and, yes, abortions, which make up 5 percent of its work) and asked whether the government pays for abortions (yes, in the case of rape or incest).
After five hours, Richards left the room unscathed, yet exhausted and saddened that the issues of women’s health, and choice, are still not their own.
“As if we don’t have the competency or the fortitude to make important life decisions, like about pregnancy,” she said. “That’s what we do every single day.
“The total lack of empathy, I thought, was most profound.”
Richards, 58, is the daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in history and was once deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi. She lives in New York with her husband, Kirk Adams, a labor organizer. They have three children.
After the third child, Richards became pregnant again and had an abortion, a decision she first shared in a 2014 essay in Elle magazine.
“It was the right decision for me and my husband,” she wrote, “and it wasn’t a difficult decision … But I’m here to say, when politicians argue and shout about abortion, they’re talking about me — and millions of other women around the country.”
Richards was happy to visit Washington state, where Planned Parenthood has 35 health centers that treat more than 100,000 women and men annually.
“Washington state is really on the cutting edge of so many things that we’re trying to do in terms of improving access to health care and reproductive rights,” she said. “I spend a lot of time in states that are really struggling and where folks are putting politics in front of access to care.”
In that sense, she said, Washington state is “the tip of the spear. You’re where the country’s going.”
Still, Washington state lawmakers sparred over a bill that would have expanded birth control access by allowing women to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy just once a year. It passed in the house by a 91-6 vote, but the Senate refused to hold a hearing, then added so-called “poison pill amendments,” making it useless.
Richards has followed the #ShoutYourAbortion movement that was started by Seattle writer Amelia Bonow, who received support and security from the local affiliate and its CEO, Chris Charbonneau.
“It reflects what makes me most hopeful for this next century,” Richards said. “That there’s a whole new generation of young people who just refused to be judged and shamed about who they are, whether it’s their gender identity, their sexual orientation or what they do with their body.”
Richards called the coming election a point of demarcation that will determine “whether we’re going to go forward into the 21st century or leap back into the 1950s and start over on things like women’s rights.”
Consider, she said: Every GOP presidential candidate has pledged not only to block access to safe and legal abortion, but also to eliminate Planned Parenthood. Ohio Gov. John Kasich just signed his 17th bill to end access to reproductive health, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott just signed a bill to end access to Planned Parenthood.
In Richards’ native Texas, dozens of health centers have been shuttered, Richards said, impacting thousands of women. She just met a woman in Fort Worth who drove 400 miles to get a safe and legal abortion.
“You think: What about the women who can’t get access?” Richards asked.
Her marching orders are to help voters understand what is at stake.
“Maybe this is overly simplistic,” she said, “but there is not a person in this country who wants their daughter to have fewer rights than they did. Or less opportunity. Or less of a future.
“And I do think that’s what this is going to come down to.”
But it’s not just daughters. Sons, too, visit Planned Parenthood, believe in its mission and make that clear when they see Richards on the street — more since the Congressional hearing than ever before.
“I had more men stop me on the street to say, ‘I watched that hearing and I stand with Planned Parenthood,’” Richards said. “That’s never happened in the time I have been with this organization.
“So I believe this is a voting issue not only for women. It’s a voting issue for everybody.”