On the morning of one of the most important days in her career, Cecile Richards waited anxiously in her office at Planned Parenthood headquarters in Manhattan, texting furiously with friends across the country.
A few minutes past 10 a.m., a message from her daughter flashed across the screen. A single word: Yay!
“That was when I knew we’d won,” Richards says, recalling the moment when she learned of the decision in the biggest abortion-related case to come before the Supreme Court in more than two decades. In a 5-to-3 vote, the justices had ruled that Texas’s restrictions on abortion clinics placed an “undue burden” on women seeking to end their pregnancies.
Seeing that text, the president of Planned Parenthood ran out of her office and joined her staff, gathered around television sets, clapping and crying, to revel in a moment of joy.
“It was a little bit unreal,” she recalls of the day’s emotions.
The decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was a significant victory for abortion providers nationwide. And it came at a significant moment.
One hundred years after Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger began educating women about birth control in New York and 43 years after Roe v. Wade, the reproductive rights movement in America is at a pivotal crossroads. Facing hundreds of restrictive laws nationwide, abortion rights advocates are going on the offensive with a new strategy.
Gone is the vaguely conciliatory mantra of the past, the ideal of keeping abortion “safe, legal and rare” once advocated by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Today’s activists are bringing the passionately debated procedure into the light, encouraging women to talk openly about their abortions and giving the movement an unapologetic human face.
And they aren’t stopping there. Heading into a high-stakes presidential election, Planned Parenthood’s political arm and its supporters are rolling up their sleeves to help elect Hillary Clinton — who has done an about-face on the issue with a party platform that is pushing, for the first time , for full Medicaid funding for abortions.
It’s a bold move that positively courts controversy. But controversy has never stopped Cecile Richards.
“There’s this thought that women are just too scattered, we’re too impulsive, we are too hormonal, we can’t make good decisions for ourselves,” Richards says, sitting in a sterile, glass-walled conference room at Planned Parenthood’s headquarters. She’s talking about what she thinks lies at the root of the bitter debate over abortion.
She is, as always, immaculately put together, her tall frame draped in a merlot-colored sheath and matching cardigan, gold earrings twinkling beneath her short, white-blond hair. Her alto voice conveys the subtlest hint of a Texas twang, and more than a hint of sarcasm.
“Therefore we need the state to tell us, we need the state to give us medical information, even if it’s incorrect,” she says. “We need the state to give us an ultrasound because we must not really realize that we’re pregnant; we have to go away for 24 hours and think it over.”
She leans forward slightly and raises her voice: “Can you imagine if these kinds of restrictions were put on any other kind of health care in America?”
In person, the 59-year-old Richards exudes both a warm authenticity and a subtle impenetrability; there’s the sense that she means everything she says, but she isn’t saying everything. Her public persona is almost preternaturally controlled; like the savviest politicians, she’s supremely polished, perpetually on-message and surrounded by a highly protective media operation that carefully controls reporters’ access and circles the wagons when uncomfortable situations arise.
Which, given her job, they frequently do. As the president of the country’s largest abortion provider, Richards is a lightning rod for conflicting passions. Polarizing? The word could have been invented for her. It’s a safe bet that how you view her depends on where you stand on abortion: She’s composed, heroic, a righteous defender of the vulnerable; or she’s cold, unfeeling, a cunning apologist for baby murderers.
She gets standing ovations. She also gets death threats.
One thing, though, is indisputable: her success at creating a powerful political juggernaut — pretty close to “the largest kick-butt political organization” that she said she wanted to establish not long after she took the helm in 2006.
In a lineup of past presidents of Planned Parenthood, which has a separate political action committee, Richards stands out — her background isn’t in women’s health care. It’s in organizing and politics. And she has deployed her skills in those fields to win major battles for abortion rights.
When the Susan G. Komen foundation announced that it would cut funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics in 2012, the organization sparked an outcry so fierce that Komen quickly backtracked. Last year, Planned Parenthood successfully turned back a challenge by an antiabortion group that shot undercover video purporting to show that the organization was illegally selling fetal tissue. Richards herself stared down hostile lawmakers bent on defunding her organization in a congressional hearing called after the videos surfaced.
Since Richards’s ascension, Planned Parenthood has also pointedly transformed its messaging and its public strategy. Two years ago, the organization officially — and shrewdly — shed the abortion-specific “pro-choice” label in favor of broader terms such as “reproductive rights” and “women’s health care.” Most notably, it started highlighting the day-to-day reality of abortion, encouraging women to come forward with their personal stories.
And lots of women are taking the leap. More than 200 shared their abortion experiences in public amicus briefs filed as part of Whole Woman’s Health.
“I have never been in a courtroom where women’s experiences were so prominent and so impossible to ignore,” Richards says.
For the activist extraordinaire, it’s all in a decade’s work. And it wins her major kudos from admirers.
Richards has “really transformed” Planned Parenthood, says Rep. Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, and “turned it into the kind of political machine that has been necessary to not only fight back the bad policy positions, but to actually raise money.”
To Richards’s critics, however, such praise has an ironic ring. “They always talk about [us] making abortion a political issue, but when you look at Planned Parenthood now, everything they do is political,” says Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, a national college-level antiabortion organization.
“I think Cecile Richards has now become the puppetmaster for Democrats in Congress,” says Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. “There is no doubt that Cecile Richards wants to influence a President Clinton and control the Supreme Court.”
Richards’s role and influence in Democratic circles is certainly out there for all to see. Planned Parenthood endorsed Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic primary, taking sides for the first time before the general election. Richards spoke at Clinton’s nominating convention. Her organization recently announced that it would register voters at Planned Parenthood clinics, and no one expects many would-be Republicans to sign up.
Most strikingly, Richards has set her sights on the Maginot Line of the abortion wars — federal funding for abortions. This is currently restricted by the Hyde Amendment, a law passed in 1976 that bans the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions in almost all circumstances. This year’s Democratic Party platform is calling for its repeal.
“The Hyde amendment hurts women,” Richards tweeted in July. “For too long this country has punished low-income women seeking abortion, forcing those who have the least to pay the most to access care.”
Richards comes by her outspoken liberal activism honestly.
She grew up in Dallas and Austin, the daughter of staunchly liberal parents who taught their four children to stuff and sort political mailers and regularly hosted boisterous political dinner parties. Her mother, famously, was Ann Richards — she of the notorious “born with a silver foot in his mouth” poke at George H.W. Bush — a Democratic governor of Texas and a formidable feminist.
“One of the real gifts she gave to me and to a lot of other women was encouraging women to take risks,” Richards says of her mother. “Nothing gave her more pleasure than the success of other women.”
Her family’s commitment to activism was consuming: In his memoir, her father, prominent civil rights attorney David Richards, writes about a 1966 summer vacation that was put on hold after he was invited to join a dance for protesting farmworkers.
He recalls how Cecile, “probably nine years old at the time, told her mother excitedly that this was going to be her first dance. The VFW hall filled with Chicano activists on that hot evening was not every girl’s dream dance, but in the case of Cecile, it probably suited her perfectly.”
After graduating from Brown University, Richards began her career as a labor organizer and activist, working with garment workers, janitors and hotel employees. When her mother ran for governor in 1990, she got into politics; in 2002, she served as deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, then the House Democratic minority whip. “She could be the President,” Pelosi said of Richards in a 2013 New Yorker profile.
She became president of Planned Parenthood instead.
At the helm of a major national organization, Richards is far from the trenches of her youth. But she’s still inspired, those close to her say, by Planned Parenthood’s patients and on-the-ground employees — the people who must walk past protesters to see a doctor or to get to their jobs.
“Absorbing the experiences of the clients of Planned Parenthood has had a huge impact on her,” says Terry McGovern, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who has known Richards for more than 15 years. “At a certain point, if you’re seeing all these really ridiculous, untenable positions that women are put in, you get to a point where you have to stop being defensive. Enough. Her leadership has certainly evolved around that realization.”
Moments before Richards stepped onto the House floor in September to defend Planned Parenthood at the undercover video hearing, McGovern sent her a text message of support: May the rage of women through the centuries center you as you go into this.
The sentiment inspired Richards, although she may not have needed the extra “You go, girl.” She navigated the hearing with her signature composure, frustrating some congressmen with her strict adherence to the Planned Parenthood script.
Her testimony galvanized activists on both sides of the debate. Hawkins of Students for Life shared the lawmakers’ irritation with Richards’s responses: “She was obviously very well prepared,” she says. “It was masterful evasiveness.”
But legions of Planned Parenthood’s supporters followed the session online, tweeting in solidarity under the hashtag #StandWithPP.
Among them was Amelia Bonow, the Seattle-based co-founder of the grass-roots campaign #ShoutYourAbortion. “I was astounded, watching Cecile be so unflappable,” Bonow says. “It made me want to come out swinging, to make the world a safer place to talk about abortion.”
Making the world safer for abortion is a central part of Richards’s mission, a fact not lost on antiabortion advocates. “She really has made Planned Parenthood more about abortion than it ever was before,” says Anna Paprocki, staff counsel for the antiabortion group Americans United for Life.
Antiabortion activists say that the attempt to strip the stigma from abortion isn’t succeeding. “It’s an effort to make abortion acceptable in society, and I just don’t see it working,” Tobias says. “They’re not influencing women in America in general.”
So it was a shock to that movement when a nonpartisan student group invited Richards to speak at Georgetown University, the country’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit college, in April. Abortion opponents protested her appearance, and the Archdiocese of Washington issued a sharp rebuke. Thousands signed a petition urging Georgetown to cancel the event. But Richards and her campus supporters were undeterred.
On the day of her address, a dozen young men in dark suits stood in the bright sunlight at the main campus gates, solemnly intoning the Hail Mary. Behind them, the lush Copley Lawn was staked with tiny blue and pink flags representing aborted fetuses.
But inside Lohrfink Auditorium, the click of Richards’s black heels was drowned out by cheers as she strode onto the stage before a crowd of hundreds, many dressed in Planned Parenthood’s signature pink.
“I love that Georgetown students are the kind of people who don’t have to agree with someone to listen to her thoughts,” Richards told them. “Every bit of progress we have made in this country, perhaps in the world, has been because there were people willing to speak out even when it was unpopular.”
A few hours later, another speaker mounted the pulpit of a nearby campus chapel. The school’s Students for Life group had arranged to host another guest: Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned antiabortion activist who runs a Christian ministry that helps abortion providers find other jobs.
After Richards spoke about the need to trust women, Johnson spoke about the need to convert them.
“No one is beyond the power of Christ,” Johnson told the dozens of students in her audience. “I have faith that one day it won’t be me standing here speaking and defending the sanctity of human life. I believe that one day it will be Cecile Richards standing here.”
Johnson is aware of her former boss’s influence, which is why, she says later in an interview, it was important to respond to Richards’s presence on campus.
“I think Cecile is smart, she’s beautiful, she’s articulate, she has been a very good face and spokesperson for Planned Parenthood and does a good job of always pivoting back to their key talking points,” says Johnson . “What that tells me is that we have to be very clear with our message, as well. We have to be able to articulate our message as well as they articulate theirs.”
That message is clearer, more out in the open, than ever before. At the Democratic National Convention, Richards delivered it again in her speech, using that once-taboo word — abortion — three times in five minutes.
There won’t be any hiding from it anymore.
“There are still enormous barriers to women who need access to safe and legal abortion,” she says, wrapping up an interview. “We need to challenge or repeal every single restriction that’s out there.”
“The fight,” she says, “goes on.”