A Conversation with Cecile Richards
Conscience: Since your childhood, you have been immersed in the fight for progressive causes—from your days campaigning for progressive women (including your legendary mom) to your union and voter registration work to your 12 years at the helm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). What advice would you give to women who look to you as their role model?
CR: Right now, women are shaking the foundation of this country by challenging political and cultural norms and organizing on behalf of issues and candidates they believe in. Over the past year, grassroots mobilization has saved affordable healthcare for millions of people and helped to keep the doors of Planned Parenthood open across America.
You don’t have to be a professional activist to make a difference, and this is a moment for us all to do more than we ever thought possible. That can mean starting an organization, joining up with others to work on an important cause, or even running for office. This is a time to start before you are ready! Don’t wait to be asked and don’t wait for instructions. There has never been a better time to stand up for what you believe, and when you do, you will meet incredible people and change the world along the way.
Conscience: You grew up in a state where religion plays such a powerful force in politics. How has that experience shaped your view about the proper balance between church and state?
CR: I first saw how religion was being exploited as a tool for political agendas during my mother’s losing re-election campaign for governor of Texas. The Christian Coalition—which was a political group, not a religious group—used inflammatory mailings and extreme language to defeat candidates across the country, including members of the Texas State Board of Education.
After that, I founded the Texas Freedom Network along with clergy, public school advocates, and others who believe in the important separation of church and state and the importance of public education. Still today, we are seeing politicians using the guise of religious liberties to control women’s personal reproductive healthcare decisions. They are using religion to infringe on the religious and personal freedoms of millions of women who do not share their views. These are deeply personal issues, and while everyone is entitled to their own views, no politician is entitled to force those views on women.
Conscience: As you know, Catholics for Choice has advocated for freedom of religion and freedom from religion— which is not a license to discriminate or impose one set of religious beliefs on all Americans, but rather the right of all individuals to make their own conscience-based decisions about what reproductive care they need or who to love. What worries you most about the Trump administration’s efforts to misuse “religious freedom” to allow the religious right to deny women reproductive care?
CR: The latest refusal rule by the Department of Health and Human Services is unprecedented in its scope: It gives any health care worker—from a pharmacist to a volunteer—the license to deny patients access to abortion and other reproductive and sexual healthcare services. It’s a blatant license to discriminate, particularly against LGBTQ people or anyone in need of services that a healthcare worker deems divergent to their personal beliefs.
The consequences are far-reaching, but this dangerous idea isn’t new. It’s already happened—for example, to Mindy S. from Iowa, who was heartbroken when she found out her pregnancy wasn’t healthy and there were major health complications. The hospital refused to terminate the pregnancy, and she spent weeks in pain and fighting infection until she delivered naturally. Her son died within hours. Or Rebecca in Maine, whose daughter was refused birth control to treat painful periods because the pharmacist didn’t like that she wasn’t married. Or Emma in
Minnesota, whose sister goes to Planned Parenthood now after a pharmacist denied her birth control simply because she was in high school. This rule is nothing more than the Trump administration giving a license to discriminate, and it’s an outrage.
Conscience: We are on the precipice of a new and frightening time looking at a world without Title X funding for family planning and a Post-Roe reckoning with abortion access. Going forward, what do you think is the most important strategic principle the movement for women’s rights, health and justice needs to hold true to?
CR: We’ve got to remember that all of our issues are connected. At Planned Parenthood, we understand that reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, immigrant justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and so much more are part of the same fight. This past year has shown us we need to fight alongside one another to affect the change we want. We’ve also seen that when we stand together, we can win.
One of my favorite stories from last year came out of a training in Arizona for our young leaders, just after the last Trumpcare bill went down in the Senate. Planned Parenthood could have taken a breather and celebrated the win for reproductive rights and healthcare, but our activists on the ground got together and asked how they could help immigrant youth. Our work works best when we’re doing it together, and making those connections on the ground is critical.
Conscience: What was it like to give testimony and be interrogated before Congress and how did you keep your cool?
CR: The most important lesson was to keep the women we serve foremost in my mind. This was a chance to tell millions of people watching the hearing about the extraordinary care Planned Parenthood doctors, clinicians and staff provide every single day.
Soon it became clear that the ‘hearing’ was just a television spectacle. The worse my interrogators behaved—interrupting, belittling me and Planned Parenthood— the easier it was to just let them and not take the bait.
Even with five congressional committees focused on Planned Parenthood— more than for the Enron scandal and the financial crisis—we were cleared of all wrongdoing in every congressional or state investigation. Instead, the perpetrators of the video scam were indicted on 15 felony counts.
Conscience: What was your fondest and most enjoyable moment as leader of Planned Parenthood?
CR: During the Affordable Care Act debate, one major fight was whether birth control would be covered as preventive healthcare. We had to organize like crazy. There was no prouder moment for me than when my phone rang and it was President Obama, telling me that he was about to announce to the White House that, for the first time, all women—no matter where they work—would have birth control fully covered under insurance plans. Today, more than 62 million women have access to that benefit, and we are seeing an extraordinary decline in unintended pregnancy. Even though the current administration wants to allow bosses to decide whether their employees get birth control, this has ignited people all across the country to defend a crucial healthcare benefit for millions.
Conscience: During your tenure, PPFA grew dramatically in membership and visibility—while at the same time being under unprecedented attack. As you know, our Dear Planned Parenthood book encapsulates the stories Catholics across the States who are grateful for the essential, compassionate care Planned Parenthood provides across the country. What is the one most effective thing supporters and Conscience readers can do to ensure that Planned Parenthood can continue to provide care in their communities?
CR: Marching is great, speaking out is great, but voting is essential. Ever since the Women’s Marches, women have been organizing and speaking out like never before. Today, women are the most potent political force in this country. Now we’re going to take that energy to the polls to change the face of political power in America.
Conscience: Despite continued attacks by the religious right against Planned Parenthood, people across the country are mobilized to stand up for women’s reproductive rights. What role do you see for progressive faith voices in this movement, the vast majority of whom support compassionate reproductive care for all?
CR: People of faith have always been deeply entrenched in the fight for reproductive healthcare, because equitable access to health care is a human right. Clergy and people of faith have specifically and intentionally worked with Planned Parenthood for our entire history. We are enormously proud of and grateful for our longstanding partnership with Catholics for Choice!
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America Clergy Advocacy Board takes an active role in increasing public awareness of the theological and moral basis for reproductive rights.
Conscience: In a recent interview you said you were not a “beach vacation person.” What would be your ultimate travel destination?
CR: Each year I go somewhere I’ve never been, and I’ve seen a lot of the world! This fall I’m planning to meet my daughter Hannah in Japan, a country that I’ve never had the chance to visit before.
Conscience: We know you’re an avid cook. What is your favorite food that reminds you of Texas?
CR: Chile rellenos with tomatillo sauce! The best!