Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's Choice Leader

"The reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century," says Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, here greeting a supporter. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

At 10 p.m. one night earlier this week, Cecile Richards, brand-new president of Planned Parenthood, rushed out of Union Station and into a car, where she became Cecile Richards, mom. Her husband was driving. He told her to call their daughter. Again.

"She's talked to your mom," he said.

Richards's mother is the formidable former Texas governor, Ann Richards, battling recently diagnosed esophageal cancer. Ann Richards still lives in Austin, but she has been going to Houston for treatments, and Richards knew that the following morning, her "very tough" mother had another appointment there.

Startled, she called her daughter, Lily, a student at Brandeis University, who reported that Ann Richards had advice about Lily's upcoming interview with CBS for a summer internship. "You have to have," the family matriarch insisted, "a new spring suit."

"She's about to leave for M.D. Anderson [Cancer Center]," Cecile Richards says, retelling the story in Planned Parenthood's elegant offices on Massachusetts Avenue NW. "The world's in an apocalyptic frame" -- and yet her mother comes up with a solution: "You've got to have new clothes!"

Cecile Richards told her daughter to settle for a new shirt. And added, consolingly, "Once we get the job, we'll get a new suit."

With that, she retreated right back into what she calls "the South Dakota bubble."

Richards took over Planned Parenthood Feb. 15 and expected some fierce fights, but "not in the first four weeks. I did think there would be a honeymoon period," she says.

In her first week on the job, the Supreme Court agreed to decide if the first federal ban on a method of abortion is constitutional. Two weeks later, South Dakota became the first state to ban nearly all abortions and set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade . Mississippi is on the cusp of enacting a similar law.

A nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $800 million, Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health care and sexual-health information to nearly 5 million women, men and teens each year, but Richards, 48, does not have a background in public health: She is a veteran Democratic political operative with Annie Lennox hair and a steely, strategic core, hired to preserve abortion rights.

"Listen, the reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century," she said. "Clearly, with some folks in the country, we're going to get there kicking and screaming."

To get the job done, she has been traveling and seeking advice. Thursday she was back in Washington, where she lives with her husband and 15-year-old twins, until they all move to New York this summer. She met with George Washington University students, then with a group of teens at a health clinic in Northeast. She had lunch with a small group of professional women and stay-at-home moms in their thirties and forties. As she rode from place to place, she asked her driver, Ron Evans, for an update on the NCAA tournament so she could talk brackets with her husband.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company