Cecile Richards has served as president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund since 2006. She says this election is nothing like 2008: Women's health issues are front and center, from Rep. Todd Akin's remarks this week to Republicans' pledge to defund Planned Parenthood. We spoke Wednesday about what the 2012 election means for women's health, how Akin's comments fit into that and what role Planned Parenthood will play in the debate. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Sarah Kliff: Tell me a bit about your reaction to Rep. Akin's remarks earlier this week and the discussion we've been having since?
Cecile Richards: Like every other woman and man, I think, I was appalled by his statement. It underscored what we've been dealing with during this Congress and the danger of having politicians legislating on these issues when they have a fundamental lack of understanding of how we work.
Honestly, what Rep. Akin said is not that different from [the views of] his fellow Republicans. I'm glad more people are aware of how extreme this House is. If they look at his positions, they’ll see they are virtually identical to Paul Ryan's, who is now the vice presidential nominee.
SK: Would you like to see Akin stay in the race, or would you want him to drop out?
CR: I don't think this guy should be in office. I won't weigh in on what the Republican party thinks about whether he should stay. I do think that, if this isn't a wake-up call, I don't know what is. This is who is making decisions about basic access to health care. It’s outrageous. A lot of people have made fun of it. It’s just not funny. When I think of women we see, women who are victims of rape, that's not a laughing matter at all.
SK: How does the Republican platform that passed last week, which supports an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, fit into the discussion we're having?
CR: The combination this week of Rep. Akin's comments, followed by Rep. Steve King's comments, and then to have the Republican party pass their platform, it really is a trifecta.
I think this is a wake-up call across the country about women's health. What we’re hearing from our patients and our supporters around the country is they're not willing to go back to the 1950s. Mr. Romney wants to overturn Roe, he wants to ban abortion and has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. That's what he supports.
SK: How does this election compare to 2008, in terms of women's health? It feels to me that we're talking a lot more about Planned Parenthood and these issues than we ever have before.
CR: I've never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen a presidential election where women's basic access to birth control is practically on the ballot. Defunding Planned Parenthood is practically on the ballot. It’s been incredible to witness the last year and a half and this debate we've had over access to care.
Now we're seeing a presidential election that already has ads about defunding Planned Parenthood. That's never happened before, not that I can remember. This is not something that John McCain was campaigning to do. George Bush wasn’t either. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
SK: How do Rep. Akin's remarks fit into the larger context of the election? Are they something that Planned Parenthood will be talking about and drawing attention to?
CR: I don't know about his remarks exactly, but I do think they are a reminder about Romney's position. Going back to when you asked about how this election is different, this is the first time that you don't really have to infer what he would do. Romney has said very clearly, we’re going to get rid of Planned Parenthood. We're going to overturn Roe. These are positions that he has that are loud and clear. So it's Mitt Romney's agenda that I'm most concerned about, since he's the one running for president.
SK: Republicans keep talking about issues like the contraceptives mandate and defunding Planned Parenthood. It looks as if they think this is a winning issue, that will rally their base. So why is this a winning issue, from your perspective, for Democrats?
CR: What we’ve been seeing through the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and through the ads we ran in Florida and Iowa, is that when women learn that Romney wants to end funding for Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe, they come to President Obama in droves.
A lot of women who come to Planned Parenthood are busy; they're trying to get their kids back to school. They’re just beginning to turn their attention to the election and they see the comments by Rep. Akin and the positions that Republicans are taking. As they begin to learn those, they will not vote to take away their own rights.