As president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards is seeing the group through a period of unprecedented political opposition. Republicans from Mitt Romney on down want to end its federal funding. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation withdrew and then under pressure restored $700,000 in funding for mammograms.
Conservatives and even some liberals erupted over an Obama administration rule, strongly supported by Planned Parenthood, that required religious-affiliated hospitals and universities to cover contraception in their health insurance plans. And Rush Limbaugh ignited a firestorm by crudely insulting Sandra Fluke, a young woman who wanted to testify in favor of the rule.
Membership has mushroomed amid the controversies, and under the new health law, clientele is poised to soar as well. One in five women have used a Planned Parenthood service at some point in their lives, Richards often says, and its 800-plus clinics are preparing for millions more women to come in for exams, cancer screenings, STD tests, and birth control.
Richards, daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and one of National Journal's 25 most influential women in Washington, is walking a delicate line between her Democratic history and her current role heading what is meant to be a bipartisan health organization. She recently wrote that a Mitt Romney presidency would be “devastating” for women’s health and her group's political arm endorsed President Obama. On Wednesday, Richards invited Democratic activists to a training seminar put on by Planned Parenthood and the liberal group Democracy for America. “This is how we push back against anti-women's health politicians and their deep-pocketed cronies,” she wrote.
Still, she rejects criticism that her leadership has been partisan. Richards points to the GOP move to the right as a challenge, but says Planned Parenthood is still bipartisan and has plenty of Republican supporters.
NJ The all-male witness panel at the Republican hearing on President Obama’s contraception coverage rule turned into a bonanza for you. How did that happen?
Richards I have learned so much in the last year and a half about the power of social media to organize and ignite a story. Literally, a Planned Parenthood staffer is sitting in a hearing, snaps a picture of these five men testifying about why women don’t need birth control, posts it on Facebook, and frankly the whole story turns around. It’s permanently embedded in politics.... It just took off.
NJ Why do conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, keep reviving these issues?
Richards They know the fire’s hot but they just keep putting their hand in it. We’ve had a cascading waterfall of new supporters starting with efforts to defund Planned Parenthood by the House. I’m not surprised by anything Rush Limbaugh says. He seems to live to provoke people. I was certainly encouraged to see the uniform -- almost uniform -- reaction and public conversation about the inappropriateness (of what he said about Sandra Fluke). My reaction was to call my daughters and just feel like you had to apologize that any man would ever say that to a woman.
NJ In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Campbell Brown accused Planned Parenthood of self-destructive behavior, including “blind partisanship” and burning instead of building bridges to Republicans.
Richards Many Republicans support Planned Parenthood and they have for decades. Frankly our work is consistent with the conservative Republican values of individual responsibility and government staying out of people’s personal lives. In Arizona, Peggy Goldwater [Barry Goldwater’s wife] was one of our founders. The entire presidential primary was a race to the bottom on women’s health care. It’s very challenging when you have a Republican Party platform that is demanding Republican opposition to [Roe v. Wade], demanding opposition to Planned Parenthood, opposition to birth control coverage. Frankly, I think that is out of step with where the American people are.
NJ Brown specifically mentioned Maine Sen. Susan Collins. Are you still working with her?
Richards We have worked with Susan Collins for years and will continue to work with her.… [The environment] is very difficult. There are Republicans who we do support who are frankly terrified of the tea party and of being primaried. Just observing some of the races that we’ve seen this year, Sen. [Richard] Lugar in Indiana is a good example -- a moderate Republican who crossed party lines on a variety of issues. It’s a very cautionary tale for moderate Republicans in the party. We have Republican board members, we have Republican CEOs, we have Republican supporters all across the country. You don’t have a 68 percent approval rating without them…. The trouble is, the leadership of the party has become much more difficult for moderate Republicans and more-independent-minded Republicans. I just fundamentally disagree with her premise. She was choosing the facts to meet her own particular point of view. This has never been a partisan organization.… I live for the day when politics is no longer used to keep women from getting health care in America. But there’s work to do. We certainly never have faced the kind of partisan opposition to family planning and to Planned Parenthood by the congressional leadership and anyone running for president that we’re seeing now.
NJ What is your relationship with the Obama administration?
Richards I’ve been working with this administration for the last three years on getting women better health care access in a whole host of ways.… [The Affordable Care Act] is the single most important opportunity to expand women’s health care access in this country that we will ever see. We’re not just focused on the 3 million patients we saw last year but the millions more who will now have access and will be insured. After the reform in Massachusetts, we saw at Planned Parenthood a flood of women who were for the first time insured. There was enormous demand. We’ve been preparing for the last two years for the influx of women who will be covered.