Cecile Richards and SXSW are a good fit. The executive director of Planned Parenthood is a native Texan with deep ties to the state—her mom, Ann Richards, was the last Democratic governor of the state—and she’s increasingly interested in the role of tech as a way to increase her organization’s reach.
To that end, she spent Friday afternoon on a panel with Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp (who joined Planned Parenthood’s board of directors in 2014) as they talked about ways for people in the tech world can get involved in the political struggle Planned Parenthood faces. She and Karp unveiled a campaign to give observers in the tech industry the chance to take a side—#TechStandsWithPP—but the role of tech in Planned Parenthood’s mission goes beyond politics. Texas Monthly sat down with Richards to talk about what the tech community can offer, how the current political environment has changed Planned Parenthood’s aims for 2017 and beyond, and whether she sees herself following in her mom’s political footsteps.
Dan Solomon: The presidential election turned out differently than many people expected. If Hillary Clinton had won, what do you think you would be focusing on right now?
Cecile Richards: Oh my gosh, we were so excited, because really we had a whole plan to expand and really double down on birth control access. We’re really proud of the fact that we have the lowest teen pregnancy rate in our history, but it’s totally uneven. Our real big focus now is on equity—not only that birth control is a right, but on true, honest-to-God access, particularly for young women who live in a circumstance where they just don’t get that kind of care. We don’t even have to invent a new kind of birth control, we just have to get better at getting it to people who need it the most. To me, that was a huge opportunity, and we didn’t get to it [at the panel]. The opportunity that technology provides to reach people—we’re doing all kinds of experiments globally through mobile phones, letting people connect to a healthcare provider in their country.
DS: What’s it like to find yourself playing defense instead?
CR: Some people may not still have gotten over the election, but the morning after, Planned Parenthood folks woke up and opened their doors to centers all over this country, because people were still counting on us. I wish we could be doing more to expand access. But right now, every single day that we stay open, a thousand plus people get health care. That allows you to stay highly motivated. The other piece of it is, because I don’t think we’re only on defense, we’ve never been stronger in terms of the people, literally millions of people, coming in support of Planned Parenthood, in support of women’s rights. They had no idea that so much was at stake. It has been exciting to see how many people are really getting involved in being public participants. Calling their member of Congress, marching, taking place in town hall meetings. Maybe this is what it took.
DS: Do you think all of this mobilization offers opportunities to accomplish things that you haven’t been able to?
CR: It’s hard to say. I think it’s really Congress, in many ways, that is more the barrier. I think the Trump administration is probably not the major focus, and Congress is really where all the health care challenges are going to be. I think there are opportunities for progress, but they’re primarily going to be by getting around the political system and in some ways finding partners who can be more disruptive in this field, like technology. I was really excited to come to SXSW. You really can’t stop the march of some kinds of progress. We’re now selling birth control online in many states. Even in remote access places, getting patients who can use telemedicine to actually get care from clinicians. I do think there are all kinds of opportunity that technology is providing that it’s going to be hard for even this government to slow down.
DS: Do you have a wishlist from the tech community of things they could do? Are they best used lobbying politically, or are they best off utilizing their natural talents?
CR: To take on gnarly problems and solve them. We’ve been really encouraged by the number of tech leaders who have stood in solidarity with Planned Parenthood, just with the ideas that we believe in, of people having full access to reproductive healthcare. I think that’s important. I spent a lot of time going back and forth to California because there are a lot of folks there really on the cutting edge of figuring out how we use technology to get better access to care. Our ability now to book a million appointments on mobile phones would not have happened without the partnerships that we’ve had. One of the things that I’m really excited about is the use of text chat with young people. In many areas of the country, young people really don’t have any one to talk to about issues. We’re talking to several thousand a month. That could be even bigger, and that’s one of the things we’re working on: How do you scale that kind of resource? We had been working with the CDC on this, and there were people in the health care community that were present in this. I’m not sure how much progress we’ll make now with the government. But it’s something that the tech community is just a perfect match for. I feel that Planned Parenthood and the internet were this perfect match made in heaven. Really, our whole idea starting out was, how do you take away barriers to health care services and get people good information? The internet has literally transformed our ability to do that, whether it is actual health care, like birth control, or whether it is getting information that young people all over the world still have basic health care issues.
DS: Planned Parenthood faces a big threat from the GOP health care bill, but there are other bills that propose further restriction on abortion on the state level. In Texas, there’s the fetal burial bill. How much does something like that affect Planned Parenthood?
CR: It is incredible to me that, as you look at all the challenges of the state of Texas, that there are people who are literally not focused on the issues that Texans care about. That’s what we said when people were passing HB2 [the omnibus abortion bill passed in 2013]. It is discouraging, and I think it’s obviously discouraging for a lot of people in the Legislature. Can’t we move ahead on things like the economy? Education and health care access are things we really care about. I feel like women are being used as a political pawns, and as a political target for people who don’t want to talk about substantive issues. We’re proud that here in Texas, Planned Parenthood’s doors have stayed open. We continue to provide health care no matter what this state Legislature and politicians throw at us. Thousands of people come to us for care, and they’re really glad that we’re there.
DS: You obviously seem very committed to your current job, but there is going to be an election in Texas in 2018. Have you given any thought to being a candidate?
CR: [laughs] I never say never, but I’ve got a big job right now. But it’s never been more important that people in Texas run for every office. It’s interesting—people focus on the big Senate race, but we need folks to run for every office. That is one thing you asked earlier about. What are the opportunities? I’ve never seen more people come up to me and ask about running for office. Folks who have never thought about running for office before—particularly women. That to me is maybe a good outcome of all this. And believe me, you’ll be the first to know.