She Made Planned Parenthood a Juggernaut. Now Her Progress Is Being Erased

As the former president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards helped transform the federation of women’s healthcare clinics into a political juggernaut, all while deflecting both Republican efforts to strip the organization of federal funding and vicious attacks on her character by religious fanatics. When Richards left the organization after 12 years in 2018, Planned Parenthood had more than quadrupled its ranks of volunteers and supporters. She presiding over some of the movement’s biggest victories and its most devastating losses — including the passage, at the state level, of hundreds of anti-abortion laws, including many that only went into effect in the last week when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The daughter of Texas Governor Ann Richards, a pro-choice Democrat, Richards, now co-chair of the PAC American Bridge 21st Century, has witnessed up close the religious right’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party in Texas, and across the country. She spoke with Rolling Stone one week after the Supreme Court’s decision ending almost five decades of federal abotion protection in the United States. 

We’re confronting, with the reversal of Roe, a worst-case scenario that you’ve spent much of your professional life working to avert. How are you doing? 

I know what you’re saying, but forget about me — there are people who’ve done a lot more in their lives around abortion access, and certainly people, our elders, who lived through the days when there was no abortion access. My feeling is not a personal one: it’s much more just horror that this is the state of the United States at this point. It’s not only abortion — it’s the thought of the country being ruled by a minority, and moving more into this completely totalitarian regime where it doesn’t matter what the majority thinks, whether it’s on gun reform, the right to make your own decisions about pregnancy, climate. It’s just horrifying that we are living in a non-democratic country right now. 

I’m curious how you think your mother would react to the news this past week.

She grew up in a very traditional Texas environment, and she just became more radical as she aged about the role of women and the complete injustice of what is expected of women — the multiple burdens — so she would be particularly horrified. 

The same week Roe was overturned, GOP senators blocked a law that would have extended breastfeeding protections to millions of working women. We’re in the middle of a formula shortage, and Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly against funding that would help the FDA address it. What’s the vision for women that Republicans are articulating with their choices here?

It sounds so obvious, but it bears repeating: This is not about abortion. This is not about babies. This is not about ‘the unborn.’ This is crass politics, and it’s about appealing to a right wing base that, a few decades ago, the Republican Party decided was critical to their political power and success. Now they’re like the dog that caught the bus because these folks are now in charge of their party. 

The same Republican-led states that are banning abortion have the worst outcomes in terms of child poverty, maternal mortality, access to affordable healthcare, access to reproductive healthcare. The same legislature in Mississippi that voted to ban abortion, voted against extending healthcare coverage for new mothers in the state. If you’re in Mississippi, and you give birth, under Medicaid you get two months of healthcare and then you’re cut off. This is all part and parcel of a political agenda that completely wants to put women, in particular, back… I don’t know, centuries?

The Republican Party is obviously responsible for this, but there are a lot of Democrats who are feeling let down by President Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. There’s a feeling that we’ve known this decision was coming, and there was no plan to help women in states that have enacted these radical bans. Is that a fair assessment?

I guess I have a little bit of a different point of view. This may be too far back, but when I came to Planned Parenthood in 2006, the Democratic Party was moving in a direction of openly recruiting people who were against reproductive rights. We really did an enormous amount, through the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, to build political organization and grassroots political power that really turned that around, and the Democratic Party has over the last 15 years become really unapologetically for women’s rights. That wasn’t just because of what Planned Parenthood did, obviously… A ton of credit goes to the people inside that have been fighting within the party and within Congress to make that so. 

If you’re fighting for social change, there’s always as many or more disappointments than there are successes. But I don’t feel like it’s just party leadership. We, as a people, and as organizations, have to be ready to fight politically. And that means building stronger grassroots movements. There’s a lot of people that could have done more, and I think it’s too easy to lay this at the feet of the Democratic Party. 

President Biden is a good example of the dynamic you’re referring to. Biden was anti-abortion as a senator — he even voted in favor of a failed Constitutional amendment allowing states to overturn Roe in 1981. Last week he condemned the Supreme Court for doing exactly that. 

But I do think Democratic voters who put him in office, and delivered Democratic majorities in the Senate and House are entitled to ask: What are you doing? You’re in power now — what can you do to help women in these states?

Democrats in the House and Senate voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act. Not a single Republican vote, not a single one. So, in terms of legislation, that effort has been made. If we can possibly get two more Democratic senators and suspend the filibuster rules, we can actually [pass that law, which would protect abortion nation-wide]. But, right now, we don’t have the votes. I’m really glad to hear Joe Biden speaking out on this issue and calling what it is. This is a public healthcare catastrophe, this is a disaster. And I think we have to keep pushing the administration to do every single thing they can.

Why this all happened was not the failure of the Democratic Party. It’s because the Republican Party, which used to be the party of freedom and small government, has now become the party of taking away every single right and individual liberty that they can find. I am still stunned. If you told me 20 years ago that every major Republican candidate for the United States Senate, for governor, all the way down the ballot, is for ending — totally — the ability of people to make decisions about their pregnancy and putting those decisions in the hands of politicians and government? I would have said ‘Forget it, that is not possible.’ 

A lot of these state laws were legally unenforceable at the time they were passed — they almost functioned as Republican Party loyalty tests. But now, with Roe gone, some of these groups  — Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee — are even more emboldened, roposing laws that would ban traveling to another state to get an abortion, that would target providers in states where abortion is legal, that would aim to prosecute groups like Planned Parenthood under RICO laws. I’m curious, from your perspective, how do we extract ourselves from this mess?

I would love to say there was some kind of short-term fix. But there are three things [we can do]: We obviously have to take care of people who are pregnant right now. That means we have to make sure, using all means, that they get are able to access safe and legal abortion. Number two: we obviously have to demonstrate “What does it look like to live in a country where you don’t have any rights anymore?” It’s nice to say, “Oh, now we’re not going to have abortion.” But of course, we all know abortion continues to exist. It’s just not safe anymore. So we have to expose to the American people what it looks like [when these laws] put doctors in jail, put women in danger. And number three is: we obviously have to do the political work to make the Republican Party a minority party, because these groups are only successful to the extent the Republican party agrees to do their bidding. 

Right now, I think there is a growing sense that the Republican Party is an anti-Freedom party. It’s an anti-American Party. And an important thing to remember is, they may have rigged the system to pass these laws, and to rig the Supreme Court, but that they have never succeeded in persuading the American people to go along with this. And in fact, I feel like what we are going to see is a generational realignment, particularly with young voters in this country that is going to be long-lasting. Maybe in the short term, they can do these kinds of horrific things — criminalize doctors and women and people who are trying to help people — but it is extremely unpopular. Even in a state like Texas. 

When you read the Supreme Court decision — knowing what you know from years of doing this work — what was your biggest fear about what is to come?

My biggest fear is that there is now a generation of young people in this country who just had their future completely eclipsed for them. We know that abortion bans are falling hardest on people that live in rural areas, people with low incomes, and, particularly, young people. I think what has been less covered is the dramatic difference it made when Roe was decided in this country for women, in particular — being able to finish high school, to finish college. Teen pregnancy was radically reduced, child poverty was reduced. Women became half of college students, now more than half of law students. So many things changed, for women in particular, and black women, very specifically, in terms of the ability to pursue college, pursue a career — that all just got erased for a generation of people. In addition to the individual harm, that is going to just radically change the opportunities for people — and particularly for women. That’s the thing I probably worry about the most. 

When you talk about this decision sparking generational realignment of voters away from the Republican Party, what’s giving you that hope?

I just believe young people right now are so much bolder, they are engaged, they’re fighting back — and they’re doing in a different ways than my generation did. I was just at a rally in Austin, where the best speaker was a 13-year-old named Vienna who organized her seventh-grade classmates to fight against the abortion ban. She’s just not having it. And I could give you so many other examples of young people like that. I feel like one of our obligations, as folks who’ve been through these wars, is to support them, and to lift them up, and give them whatever they need to make this movement their own. That gives me enormous hope. 

And I think on a very practical sense, look: ways of getting abortion in particular have changed dramatically since Roe. Medication abortion now is like used by a majority of people in this country who terminate a pregnancy. You can buy it online, there are incredible providers that are setting up shop and helping get information to people. There’s nothing innovation likes better than a crisis and I feel like folks are rising to that occasion. And, lastly: this has been largely a women’s movement since the beginning. And I am hopeful that the outrage I’m seeing among other folk, and men, in this country will translate into building a more powerful political movement for the right to bodily autonomy, for the ability to make your own decisions about your pregnancy. Those are the three things that really do give me hope, and to some extent, are perhaps different than they were 50 years ago, when Roe was decided.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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