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Daughter of the Republic

Cecile Richards on abortion, women in office, and how Wendy Davis is different from her mom.

By February 2014Comments

Photograph by Peter Yang

As the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Cecile Richards, daughter of the late governor Ann Richards, sits on the front lines of the fierce battle over abortion and reproductive health care. This battle has brought her back home frequently since last summer, when the Legislature passed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. Richards, who speaks with the quick, no-nonsense cadence of someone used to high-stakes political fights, grew up in Dallas and Austin and worked on both of her mother’s gubernatorial campaigns. Today, she lives in New York City with her husband and three children. 

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: Let’s start with the Texas law. Almost immediately after it was passed, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit to overturn the statute. Could you tell me, broadly speaking, what the argument is that you’re making against the Texas law?

CECILE RICHARDS: Well, it’s a law that we believe severely restricts a woman’s legal right to have a safe abortion. But I think it’s important that we see this in a broader context, which is that Governor Perry essentially got rid of the women’s health care program in Texas. There were dozens of health centers that closed in Texas that provided only preventive care

JS: You mean after the 2011 legislative session?

CR: Exactly. These were centers that were providing women with basic health care, including their regular cancer screenings and their birth control. So we’re dealing with women who were already severely disadvantaged. Then, on top of it, there are these new restrictions that have been placed on abortion that are being done under the guise of improving women’s health care but, in fact, will just result in women having less access and having to travel hundreds of miles for services. One of the statutes requires doctors to have admitting privileges within thirty miles of wherever they provide services. That’s not required, I don’t think, of any other medical provider, and there are a lot of reasons why hospitals don’t necessarily provide admitting privileges to doctors that have absolutely nothing to do with the health and safety of women. Again, these folks are simply playing politics with women’s health care. There’s no evidence that this would make health care for women any better in Texas. And when the next round of this law takes effect next September, where in fact the requirements on health centers are essentially to be an ambulatory surgical site, that’s going to be even another round of closures. There are probably only a handful of centers that can meet these really outrageous standards that the state is implementing.  

JS: When the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case earlier this month, the state argued that there might be a little less access, but not so much less access that it was an undue burden. Where do you draw that line?

CR: There’s no doubt that the numerous restrictions have created a total catastrophe for Texas women. We believe that the dramatic reduction in providers caused by the admitting privileges requirement imposes an undue burden on women’s access. 

JS: What did you make of the judges’ questions?

CR: Some of the comments were deeply troubling, such as the suggestion that highways in the Rio Grande Valley are flat enough for women to drive fast to the next-closest city where legal abortion currently remains.

JS: Some observers have speculated that this law, and others that are similar to it around the country, were designed to trigger an appellate process that could lead us to a Supreme Court case where theoretically Roe v. Wade is overturned. Is that something that you and your legal team are taking into consideration?

CR: We obviously are. We’ll continue to fight this law and reevaluate at every step of the way the next best thing to do. What I think is important is that not only are we following every possible litigation option about this, we’re also doing everything we can to make sure that women in Texas can continue to get health care despite this. So we’re really dealing with this on both fronts. We’re very, very pleased that Planned Parenthood has just reopened in the Rio Grande Valley a women’s preventive care center that had closed as a result of the ending of the state’s women’s health program. And we just opened, recently, a brand-new center in Fort Worth, which provides a whole range of women’s health care. So I want to stress that despite these really draconian measures and laws that are clearly aimed at ending women’s access to reproductive care, Planned Parenthood is committed to continuing to serve women in Texas no matter what.

JS: You made an appeal to the Supreme Court back in November, which was denied. Justice Scalia wrote that Planned Parenthood had not carried the “heavy burden” of showing that the law was unconstitutional. 

CR: Well, I don’t think he’s ever been a friend of women’s health care. What’s clear, and this has been clear not only in the Supreme Court argument but arguments we’ve had across the country, is that some legislatures are dealing with women’s health completely differently than they are any other health care, creating impossible restrictions and obstacles women have to go through to access what is a legal procedure in this country. That, to me, is a concern. They are now, essentially, rewriting what is legally available to women, and it is really, I think, going at the heart of Roe. Because obviously it doesn’t make any difference to have a constitutional right if you can’t access it. I do hope the Supreme Court will look at this. In Texas, there are women who will now live hundreds of miles from any provider, and Texas is already one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to accessing abortion services. And they’re not only going after abortion services, they are going after basic birth control services. Ending the Women’s Health Program has resulted in a 77 percent decrease of clients for family planning in the last year. At some point I hope that not only politicians and the voters but some judges will pay attention to that.

JS: Are you at all concerned that this sequence of events here could lead to Roe’s being overturned?

CR: Well, of course, that’s always a concern. I believe that this court will hear a series of bills related to access to reproductive health care this year, and that’s a grave concern that we would relitigate issues that I believe for the American people were settled long ago. But frankly, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, politicians in some states, and Texas unfortunately is sort of case number one, are taking away a constitutional right not by overturning the right itself but by making it impossible to exercise.

JS: That’s what you believe the legislative intent of those bills was?

CR: There clearly was a legislative intent. That was clear from Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Governor Perry, who said he wanted to eliminate abortion in Texas altogether. These have nothing to do with health care; it all had to do with exercising their own political agenda and making women pay the price. Frankly, that’s why you’ve seen the outpouring of women and men across the state of Texas staying till all hours of the night and morning to testify against these bills, saying this is not what the people of Texas want.

JS: It’s often said that abortion is an issue on which there’s no room for compromise; there are two sides that fundamentally disagree, and there’s just no coming together. Do you think that’s true? 

CR: I think a couple of things are important. One is, abortion is already the most regulated medical procedure in this country, and certainly in Texas. Where we see enormous common ground—maybe not among politicians but among people—is that folks want women to have access to birth control, they want young people to have access to sex education that helps them prevent becoming pregnant before they are ready to be parents. Frankly, it’s an outrage that the U.S. has the highest unintended pregnancy rate of any Western industrialized country. So that, I think, is where there is enormous common ground, and we’ve demonstrated that when women have access to family planning services and can choose the family planning that works for them, we can reduce teen pregnancy, we can reduce unintended pregnancy, and we can reduce the abortion rate. That is where I believe there is enormous common ground, yet in Texas, we are seeing politicians who are determined not only to end access to abortion services but to end access to sex education and planning services as well.

JS: Do you think we’ll ever see a day when abortion is not surrounded by the kind of protest and strife that it is right now?

CR: Well, you know, it’s interesting. A couple of facts: One is that Planned Parenthood was actually started by Republicans in a lot of parts of the country. We have not only Republican patients, but we have Republican employees and we have Republican board members and supporters across the country. The traditional Republican party believed that government should stay out of people’s personal lives. Suddenly it flipped and became a party where they want to have a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. That is not really the traditional Republican party. But unfortunately, there are folks within the Republican party, and perhaps even outside of it, who have found this to be a good hot-button issue to get a certain segment of the population riled up.

JS: You feel it’s been used politically?

CR: Yes, and I think what we’ve seen since 2010 is that perhaps they went too far. You know, it’s fascinating, there was a recent election in Virginia, which is a purple state—that is, one that kind of tends to go back and forth.

JS: The governor’s race, between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli?

CR: Right. And we saw Cuccinelli was defeated over exactly this set of issues. People in Virginia—women and men—said that they didn’t want to make abortion illegal in the state, and they felt that Cuccinelli was driving the state back into the past. I think there are people who will always use reproductive rights as a political punching bag, but I think they are misreading not only where the American voters are but frankly where the next generation of voters are.

JS: People often complain that our politics today are too divisive, that Republicans and Democrats don’t sit down together and hang out together and work together. Do you think that the fight over abortion has been one of the sources of the bitterness in politics over the last forty years?

CR: No. You can poll over and over again, and frankly it’s just not the issue that is motivating the American people. Which is interesting considering the real shift we’ve seen since the 2010 election, when the tea party began to be so dominant in state legislatures and in the Congress, and we saw these efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and take away women’s right to birth control and really outlaw a whole host of things. 

JS: How much of that is due to the fact that our legislative bodies are largely male?

CR: Well, I don’t know that that’s what generated these efforts. In fact, if you look at this most recent legislative session, the Legislature didn’t want to pass these bills; it was really Governor Perry that insisted on continuing to call special sessions so that he could suspend the rules in order to get this extreme measure passed. So I don’t know that there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the Legislature for having Texas become the poster child for the most anti-woman legislation in the country. Men in this country support women’s rights just like women do. I do think that it is frustrating sometimes when you are talking about issues of reproductive health care that primarily effect women that you do have men voting on these issues, and I think sometimes, perhaps, they don’t understand the full impact of what they are putting into effect.

JS: Here’s a thought experiment: If you were to invert the ratios of men to women in all of our legislative bodies across the country and in Congress and in the judicial branch, where do you think the debate about family planning and women’s health care would be today? 

CR: There certainly wouldn’t be this complete obsession over women’s reproductive organs. And I also believe there would be a much firmer understanding of and support for women’s preventive care, which is sort of the heart of all of this. You know, it’s incredible to me that we’re going to go to the Supreme Court to argue over whether women should have birth control covered in their insurance plans. This is something that 99 percent of women in this country that are of reproductive age have used at some point—so the thought that this is somehow a controversial issue is laughable. And I think we saw a version of the experiment that you’re suggesting in the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Those nineteen women in the United States Senate—that made a huge difference. One of my favorite moments was when a male United States senator argued that maternity benefits shouldn’t be included because he didn’t need them, and Debbie Stabenow, the senator from Michigan, pointed out that perhaps his mother had needed them. But I do think that it would be a completely different conversation, and we could get past using women as a political football.

JS: You mean if women outnumbered men in Congress?

CR: Yes, and we could get to solving problems, which is what women historically have been a little more effective at doing.

JS: At this very moment we could go online and find a message board where some pretty appalling things are being said about Planned Parenthood and about you. What is that like for you, to be in that position day in and day out?

CR: I guess it would be easier to say that it takes a toll, but it really doesn’t. I’ve never been prouder to work anywhere in my life than to work at Planned Parenthood. I have the good fortune of working with some of the most committed health care professionals in this country, if not in the world. And I get the chance to meet and talk to young people who are providing sex education information in their communities, who are just so courageous and fantastic. This job has enormous rewards, and I’m grateful that I’ve had this chance to be part of it.

JS: You mentioned earlier that the last few years have been pretty good for Planned Parenthood in terms of fundraising and support, even though there have been a lot of very public efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. To what do you attribute that?

CR: Well, probably first and foremost is that one in five women in this country have been to Planned Parenthood for health care at some point in their lives. To me, it is that great alumni association that has come out in force. There are women from all generations. So they appreciate what Planned Parenthood has done for young people, for women, to provide care, and what we hear over and over is that folks can’t imagine a world without Planned Parenthood. It is part of the fabric of America. Again, I think this is perhaps what escapes some politicians. I believe people appreciate organizations and leaders that solve problems. They see Planned Parenthood as solving problems and providing health care, and it plays a really vital role in society.

JS: One of the notable fights down here was with the Komen Foundation. After they pulled their support for Planned Parenthood, seven or eight hundred thousand dollars for cancer screenings, back in 2012, there was a controversy and they ended up reversing their decision. But not before Planned Parenthood raised several million dollars. Did that seem to you to be a cautionary tale for people who would take on your organization?

CR: I think there were two things that came out of that. One, of course, it was gratifying to know that women and men of all stripes rose to our support. The other thing that was probably the most beneficial is that because of the money raised, we were able to provide more breast health care over the last two years than we have ever in our history. And frankly, a lot of women learned, if they didn’t already know, that they could go to Planned Parenthood for their cancer screenings. That was really what that was about. And I think that is absolutely what the Komen Foundation is about. That’s why I’m really thrilled that we are working together again. 

JS: You were in Texas during Wendy Davis’s filibuster. Were you one of the people who immediately thought, “Oh, she should run for governor”?

CR: It was clear to me that a fuse had been lit in Texas that I had not seen in many, many years—probably not since Mom was governor. 

JS: Are you in contact with her? Are you giving her advice?

CR: Well, I definitely talked to her, and we talked at the time when she was really thinking about this race, and I of course really encouraged her to run. You know, you don’t win unless you run. She’s got enormous strengths, and a lot of them that Mom didn’t have. An incredible history as a legislator, both in Tarrant County and of course in the Capitol. I just think she represents a different way of thinking about government. And I’m sorry Mom’s not around to see this election. She would love it. But I want to make sure you understand: we have two separate organizations, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, through which we support health care, and Planned Parenthood Votes. Any work we would do with Wendy would be with Planned Parenthood Votes.

JS: You mention that she has some strengths that your mother maybe didn’t have. What are some of those differences between them that you perceive?

CR: Well, it’s interesting. I watched Wendy filibuster that evening into the night, into the morning, and I was so struck by her calm nature, her really thoughtful engagement even with people who disagreed with her, and I really felt that this was a woman who can bring the State of Texas together. Mom was a little more rough-talking, pretty much laid it out there, how she felt. And, listen, I loved her and was just so fortunate to have her in my life, but I think Wendy brings a real interesting mix of talents, both personal and professional, that are very exciting.

JS: Now that the campaign has begun, there have been charges of sexism flying around, people calling Senator Davis “Abortion Barbie” and—

CR: Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that just outrageous?

JS: Well, I wanted to ask you about it. You worked on both of your mother’s gubernatorial campaigns. How much of this sort of thing did she face?

CR: I remember when she ran for treasurer, the thought of a woman being in charge of the state’s money was really unheard of. 

JS: Even though the money in most households was probably handled by the woman.

CR: That’s right. It was sort of a closed system. There was absolutely a double standard for Mom when she ran; she had to be twice as good. I do think it’s different now. It is extraordinary when you see how much confidence people have today for women in office. Frankly, it was the women of the U.S. Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, who got the government going again last fall. Time and time again, the evidence shows that when women get elected, they go in to do something, to get something done. I believe that was my mom’s attitude. She wasn’t there for photo ops. She was there to actually make government work for people, and that’s Wendy’s strength. And all of that criticism of her, and all of that sexism that you’re hearing, it is so outdated that it is beneath the Texas that I know and love.

JS: Senator Davis came to national attention because of her filibuster of the abortion law, which has meant that the issue has defined her, fairly or not, for millions of voters not just in Texas but nationwide. This is obviously a sensitive issue in a campaign context. How would you advise her to proceed?

CR: I don’t think she’s identified just with this issue. I really think that the response to Wendy was because she was someone who was willing to stand up and fight for principles she believed in. And that’s been true in education and a lot of other issues as well. Abortion is a personal issue for people. But when you ask voters, “Would you rather have a woman and her doctor make decisions about her pregnancy, whether it’s to terminate a pregnancy, have a child, or give a child up for adoption? Or would you rather have that decision made by politicians?” most of them, even in some of the most conservative states in the country, favor a woman and her doctor over politicians. We have seen that consistently. So that would be my advice—to talk about these personal, private decisions that women need to be able to make with their doctors. And frankly, as I said earlier, there is so much that we can do in Texas, and across this country, to help prevent unintended pregnancies and to help provide teenagers the information they need to make responsible decisions. There’s a lot of that, and frankly, Mr. Abbott’s record in this area is abysmal. And I’m sure that difference will be drawn.

JS: Democrats seem to believe that if she’s able to win, or even just keep it close, she’ll have created a blueprint for how a progressive Democrat can win statewide in Texas. But of course that blueprint already exists—it’s called your mom’s campaign. How she was able to do that?

CR: Well, I do believe that she was able to connect with people of all walks of life, and that was certainly a big part of her four years in office, and I think it was a result of how she campaigned as well. Texas has changed, but in many ways I think it’s similar to what it was 25 years ago. People still don’t want a lot of government interference in their personal lives. And they basically want it to function, they want their kid to get a good education, they want to be able to get a job and enjoy the incredible state that it is. Mom was an authentic Texan, just as Wendy is. She’s someone who has proven herself time and time again, and I think Mom had to go through that as well by being in elected office locally and a statewide office. I just believe people trusted Ann Richards, and she was honest as the day is long, and she was going to do right by people, and frankly, I think the same is true about Wendy Davis. They have a little bit similar backgrounds in some ways, and there are some interesting parallels. Mom grew up the child of a couple that went through the Depression and really never got over it. They were totally self-made. And Wendy’s story is the Texas story. It’s about picking yourself up, not relying on any handouts, but really literally putting yourself through school, reaching the very highest educational achievements, raising a daughter, and doing extraordinarily well. So I think in the same way that people could relate to Mom, they can relate to Wendy, and in Texas, that’s a big deal.

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