Cecile Richards has served as Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president since 2006. We spoke two weeks ago, prior to the Komen news, for a story that will appear Sunday in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. Richards and I discussed the state of the abortion rights movement, the attacks she has weathered in the past year and how she sees her supporters energized for the coming election year. What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation:
Sarah Kliff: Walk me through how 2011 compares to other years for Planned Parenthood.
Cecile Richards: Obviously the 2010 election was such a fundamental reshaping of state legislatures and Congress, and the thing I think is so important to remember, that election was about economy and jobs. People were frustrated, and it was a vote of anger. Yet once elected, they had these very extreme positions on women’s health issues. In 2011, we saw this unbelievable rightward shift both in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures across the country, and we’ve been dealing with it ever since.
SK: You’ve worked with a Republican-controlled House before, and never seen this kind of environment. What changed?
CR: It was the first time, really, we’d ever seen Congress go after Planned Parenthood as an organization — not just being against choice or other issues — and to make a foursquare effort to get rid of the entire family-planning program in the United States, and to have such a big vote on it in the U.S. House was historic. They named us by name, and women really identified with this. It wasn’t just “well, times are tough, we’re going to cut family planning services,” it was literally we’re going to tell women they can’t go to the major family-planning provider in this country.
That was stunning and it’s interesting looking at it now, a year later. Our support actually grew over the past year, not only in terms of activists and particularly a lot of young people who had never been active on issues related to Planned Parenthood, but also just in the American public’s eye and I think it was because there was such a focus on services we provide, the breadth of health care we provide, and I think you’ve seen all the numbers on Congress at record lows.
SK: What do you think it was about this particular issue, and this particular year, that got people off the sidelines?
CR: There may have been some people that have historically been Planned Parenthood supporters who may have moved on to other things they’re doing with their lives, having kids, and to see Planned Parenthood gone after in that way, brought a lot back to us.
I think for young people, and I have kids who got involved as well, it was the first time they’d seen their health care provider under attack. It was very much a personal thing. It wasn’t a theoretical issue of choice or rights, it was literally this is where I get my STD test, this is where I get my birth control, and now Congress is saying to me I can’t go there anymore?
The comments on Facebook, and all the comments that came in, were very personal.
SK: And why do you think there hasn’t been anything in recent years that hooked people in the same way? I think back to the debate over health reform, and there wasn’t the same surge in support there has been this past year.
CR: I think it’s because they went after us from name. Thinking of it from a political point of view, I think that was a huge mistake. It was a very clear cut issue and people thought when we were under attack, they were going to come to our aid. If it had been a more theoretical something, cutting programs everywhere, that would be different. This was literally, “No, you can’t go to Planned Parenthood anymore.”
SK: Now that you’ve mobilized all these folks, how do you keep them Planned Parenthood supporters and keep them active?
CR: Obviously, the beauty of social media is it’s a lot easier than it used to be. We just see everything that’s happening now, you can just communicate with folks in real time. I think the other thing we’re seeing is, the folks that are so adamant about ending access to birth control and Planned Parenthood, I would have looked at this last year and gone “Well, Planned Parenthood got a million new supporters, people came out of the woodwork, wow, that burner is hot. I don’t think I’m going to touch that again.”
In fact, we’ve seen just the opposite, which is they kind of unleashed a fairly extreme part of the Republican party, and it’s very hard to put that back in the corner. So we saw in Mississippi, the personhood amendment which even in Mississippi was overwhelmingly defeated, and there were Planned Parenthood supporters all across the country who helped with that campaign. And then we see attacks on Planned Parenthood in the states, and it totally reignites a fire. It’s one thing if folks said that was tough, but Congress did the right thing, and Planned Parenthood is still operational. But boy, it’s just the assaults on women’s basic health care keep coming.
SK: Do you think if the assaults went away, some supporters would back down a bit?
CR: Yeah, because they say “that issue is solved.” I just think watching this Republican primary has been incredible. For anyone who thought there was any kind of moderate voice that was going to emerge from the process, that definitely didn’t happen...a lot of the issues that are at stake right now are foursquare around access to birth control.
SK: How has your past year been, in terms of your media appearances and attention? I imagine it’s been pretty busy.
CR: I’ve been at Planned Parenthood for about five years and have spent those years telling people, “This is what we do, we see 3 million patients a year, these are all the services we provide,” and it’s just like the reaction is, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” In the space of two months we did more to educate people about who we are and what we do than anything else. And that was because Planned Parenthood was in the media, and people were paying attention. I would run into people on the street and they would say, “I can’t believe they’re trying to go after Planned Parenthood, because these are the services they provide. Ten percent of your services are related to abortion, you do all this other good work.”
I have to thank Stephen Colbert [who ran a widely-watched segment on Sen. Jon Kyl’s claim that 97 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services were abortions, which he later qualified was “not intended to be a factual statement”] who really did more to educate people about who we are and what we do more than anything I could have done.