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Cecile Richards: ‘We Have a System That Wasn’t Built For Us’

The former head of Planned Parenthood on the future of reproductive rights, the need for equal representation, and that strange meeting with Jared and Ivanka

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2016.

"When women are at the table, it's a different conversation," says Cecile Richards, who is launching a new initiative to work toward equal representation in politics.

Anthony Geathers/Redux

On a recent Wednesday, Utah and Arkansas were both sending legislation to their (male) governors that would restrict abortion at 18 weeks, and I was waiting in the hallway of a Manhattan office building, woozy from lack of sleep, and trying not to feel like a liability to the feminist cause. It wasn’t the future of reproductive rights in America that was keeping me up this time; it was my 16-month-old, her emerging molar and her plaintive, little cries throughout the night, much of which I’d spent rocking her back and forth in her darkened room, humming her into a fitful slumber. Now, the florescent lights of the hallway seemed to hum aggressively, and the notes I’d prepared the day before swam on the page.

But fate has a sense of humor: I was waiting in that hallway to meet none other than Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, mother of three (including twins!), and one of the most badass feminists of all time. Though it’s been almost a year since Richards stepped down from her 12-year stint atop Planned Parenthood — which, due in part to her efforts, has become almost synonymous with women’s rights — she’s remained an icon of female empowerment. Make Trouble, the biography she published last year (out in paperback as of March 26th), is a case in point, providing a sort of blueprint for an activist life, from Richards’ early days as a labor organizer and on the campaign trail for her mother, the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, to her poised testimony before Congress in 2015 (in the wake of bogus videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue) to her clandestine meeting with Ivanka and Jared as Donald Trump pushed to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. In April, she’ll be well on her way to making more trouble when she announces an initiative to help women fight their way to 50 percent representation in politics — the most revolutionary of obvious, common-sense ideas.

With the future of Roe v. Wade more imperiled now than ever, Richards’ ingrained ability to give injustice the proverbial middle finger is galvanizing (one takeaway: If you think you’re going to get arrested, put your ID in your bra). And her presence itself is rousing. In her steady Texas twang, she invited me into a small and tidy office to talk about reproductive rights in Trump’s America, the Supreme Court, and how womanhood is a liability in this society, precisely because the patriarchy has set it up to be that way.

In terms of women’s rights and reproductive rights, what are you keeping your eye on really closely right now?
In the immediate moment, something that I think hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention — and that is such a radical policy change in the U.S. — is this announcement of a domestic gag order [pulling federal family-planning funding from any organization that performs abortions or refers women for them]. This has never been done in the history of the United States — we’ve never actually had a domestic gag order implemented. It’s essentially requiring doctors to disregard their Hippocratic oath to [give] their patients information. And this is going to completely disrupt a program that’s been working successfully. We actually have a record-low in teenage pregnancy.

And low abortion rates.
Right. And it is going to be devastating for women who depend on the Family Planning Program, not only for family planning, but for their breast exam, their cancer screenings, their basic well-woman visits. Bottom line, it means organizations like Planned Parenthood, that serve 40 percent of the clients that use [these funds], will no longer be able to participate. And when you say to someone who’s on the Family Planning Program, “Well, you can go anywhere else”? Well, there is nowhere else, because people aren’t getting into the business of providing women with low incomes access to preventive health services. We are able to do it, because we’re able to actually raise money from private donations in order to supplement the really meager funds that come through a lot of the Medicaid and Title X programs.

I keep saying “we.” I don’t work at Planned Parenthood anymore!

I was just going to say…
I know! But I think of myself as a lifer.

But I remember going to [former Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan’s district when they were going to shut off Planned Parenthood and the preventive services there, and women telling me, “If I can’t come to the Planned Parenthood in Kenosha, there isn’t anywhere else to go.” And so, of course this kind of change will not affect women who have the ability to drive wherever or see a private doctor. This is going to affect women who have the least access to care.

These kinds of things, I think, are harder to focus on because it’s not like there’s a bill going before Congress that you can rally people around. This is being done through the administration, through rule-making. The only recourse is litigation. And as we know, this administration is doing a phenomenal job of stacking the courts with anti-women’s-health judges.

I want to talk about your meeting with Ivanka and Jared, because that was an extraordinary episode [in your book]. Can you talk a little bit about that meeting? They invited you to a Trump golf course?
Yes.

You must have had some hope that the meeting could go well, or you wouldn’t have taken it.
Well, let’s be honest: We didn’t have a lot of options. And that was actually kind of what Jared Kushner said. He said, “Look, we control everything. We control Congress, we control the White House. So I’m kind of your only avenue.” I felt like if there was an avenue to talk to two of the most influential people in this administration about the work that Planned Parenthood does and how devastating it would be for millions of people if they were in fact to defund us, then I’ll go talk to anyone.

And they basically were like, “Your hands are tied. Stop doing abortions or else.”
It was clear that it was not actually a meeting about, “OK, how can we solve this problem? How can we actually protect the ability of people, and particularly women in this country, to get access to health care?” It was, “How can we, Jared Kushner and the administration, score a political win?”

And that, to me, seems to be their entire mode of operating since they’ve been elected — the lack of empathy or care for people that their policies are impacting, from family separation to putting children in cages. There seems to be zero interest in that. There wasn’t anything about like, “Wow, well, this is going to be really hard on women.”

We were all holding out hope that Ivanka was going to be a messenger of empathy and reason. I think we’ve all been disabused of that opinion.
I mean, her concern was that I had not been appropriately thankful to her father, because he had said nice things about Planned Parenthood in his campaign.

While also saying he was going to shut down Planned Parenthood.
Yeah, exactly. I said, “Well, I’m not sure where I was going to get that ‘thank you’ in.”

“Before I was out of a job.”
Yeah. I felt like, for her it was all personal. It was all about her father. And that seems to be the way they operate. It’s not about what’s good for this country or what’s good for the people that they’re, frankly, supposed to be representing.

Do you think the administration is trying to force the hand of organizations like Planned Parenthood in the hope that, in order to continue to get funding, they’ll just stop doing abortions? Or did they just want to shut them down?
You know, in a strange way, I wish that I thought someone was actually thinking about it that carefully. But yes, in that meeting, I think the most chilling thing was when Jared Kushner said, “I just want to read a headline that says, ‘Planned Parenthood Quits Providing Abortion Services.’” As if that was going to be the political victory that he was looking for, with absolutely zero regard for what that would mean for the health care of women.

What do you think is the best way for the left to frame the abortion-rights debate right now? Is there some tactic that would be effective in this political environment?
Well, what do people want? People want access to affordable health care. And for millions of people in this country, that’s Planned Parenthood. Whether they go to Planned Parenthood now or they went there when they were in college or they send their daughter to get birth control, that’s the way people think about it.

And then on the broader topic of abortion and reproductive health care, what the people in this country feel so strongly about is that the decision about what to do about a pregnancy should be made by the pregnant person, and their doctor. And not by a politician. The majority of Americans also believe that Planned Parenthood should be funded, and birth control should be free.

But there seems to be such a disconnect. That message does not seem to be getting through politically.
We have a wildly unrepresentative democracy right now. I mean, a wildly unrepresentative Congress. And we could go into all the reasons why it is so unrepresentative, but clearly one reason is because it’s not half women, right? And we’re more than half the electorate.

So just because those debates are happening in Congress the way they are, it doesn’t mean that that’s where the American people are.

Right, but why? If we’re supposed to be a representative democracy?
Well, the Republican Party has now become the party of Trump. There’s no longer a sort of a wide swath of conservatives and moderates. It is the party of Trump. And the party of Trump is: divide at all costs, demonize, dehumanize people. And that to me is the danger here, that actually the Republican Party is no longer representative of the majority of people even of their own party.

President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards (C) speaks beside House Minority Leader Democrat Nancy Pelosi (L), Pro-Choice Caucus members and supporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 05 January 2017. Members of the Pro-Choice Caucus held a news conference with supporters to voice opposition to Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pledged to fight Republican-led efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.Pro-Choice Caucus news conference on support of women's health care, Washington, USA - 05 Jan 2017

Richards speaking beside then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (L), at a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2017. Photo credit: Michael Reynolds/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

So I think it’s just important for progressives to continue to stand up for two things. One, the right to affordable health care for everybody, because this is an issue that transcends party, and I think we saw that in this last election. And the second is to be able to make your own decisions, not only about your body but about your pregnancy.

In the wake of all the regional shifts in policy, how can the left help women who have been essentially abandoned in Trump country, who are experiencing reproductive-health deserts already?
We’re going to actually have to start taking care of women in states where the public structures and governments that we had depended on are not going to be there for them. And I think people are doing a really good job of now passing strong laws and legislation that will protect Roe at the local level, much like they just did in the state of New York and that we’ve done in other states. Because it is going to be, in many ways, now a state-by-state issue.

What are some of the most effective tools we have to protect Roe in the face of the conservative judiciary.
One hundred percent it’s passing state laws that will withstand whatever happens at the Supreme Court, because it’s simply a matter of time — not that there’s going to be a facial challenge to Roe that will be, “Oh, this is the day Roe fell.” It will be, as we have seen, incremental, just a million ways of making restrictions.

Are you watching this Louisiana law closely?
Yes. I mean, I think it all comes down to Justice Roberts, really. And whether he’s willing to overturn a precedent of the court that just happened. That is exactly what the Fifth Circuit has done, basically, waving it in his face and saying, “We’re going to make a decision that actually contradicts the Supreme Court ruling that just happened two or three years ago.”

And see if we can be the first ones to deal Roe this big blow.
Yes, yeah, exactly. And I mean, I don’t know Justice Roberts, but I certainly would hope that he would recognize that an opinion that happened while he was on the court needs to stand.

In terms of what has happened since the hardcover of your book came out, do you feel like we’re in a different place a year later? I imagine that Kavanaugh might come up…
Well, since leaving Planned Parenthood, I was traveling around the country this last year, and it would be a logical assumption that women would just be completely burned out at this point. You know, they marched, they beat back the repeal of Obamacare, they beat back the defunding of Planned Parenthood, they’ve rushed to the border on family separation, they’re striking over pay for teachers in public schools, and they’ve—

Rushed to the polls.
Yeah, and so the logical conclusion would be, “Women at this point must just be going, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’” And I feel like the exciting thing to me, and what I try to write about in my book, is that it’s the opposite. In fact, women are realizing now, suddenly, that they actually are the most powerful political force in this country.

And with the November elections, certainly the most obvious result we saw was the record number of women, and women of color, being elected to Congress. But that wasn’t the only thing. To me, the other important things are that women were 54 percent of the voters in the U.S., right? Women contributed a hundred million dollars more to political candidates and campaigns this last cycle than they did even when Hillary ran.

That’s amazing.
And that’s a lot of small donors giving their first contributions. Women were completely fueling all these political campaigns as phone-makers and door-knockers and activists. And so I feel like what’s exciting is that there is this moment where women are realizing, “If we actually all did this all together, and if we really demanded something more than simply being the worker-bees, if you will, and actually said, ‘But in return, we want women’s issues to be part of the national political debate and priorities of government,’ we could really make change.” So that’s what I’m excited about.

I mean, I think the Kavanaugh hearing was simply one more piece of evidence that when you have an unrepresentative government, then women are dismissed — and they were, in a horrific way.

What were you doing the day of that hearing? Did you cry?
No, I mean, I don’t cry. I’ve been through a lot of fights, and this isn’t going to be the last. I was enormously, enormously disappointed, and angry. And I did call my daughters to just say, “We failed you.” You know? Just the fact that your generation is going to have to fight the same things, and that the same kind of behavior that we all saw happen during Anita Hill is actually happening again, with some of the same men, is mind-blowing.

I think for so long, people have been like, “I’m fighting for the next generation.” And I think with my generation, we got to a point where we were like, “No, we’re ready for it for us.” Like, can we just be honest and not have to be shrinking violets about what we really want? We want this for us, and we kind of thought we’d gotten it.
No, it’s a fight. And it is all about politics at the end. I mean, we have to change culture, we have to change opportunity, but we also have to have equal political representation. You know, women have now somehow managed to muscle our way into the economy, even having an economic system that was built to keep us out. We’ve busted our way through the education system and now are half the college students, even though, again, it’s not like they designed the system for us. And so now we’ve got to do the same with the political system, because if we have equal representation in politics in the way that we are finally beginning to have in the economy, and in education, that’s when things will change. As we know, when women are at the table, it’s a different conversation.

So we should talk about your next venture. It sounds like seeing how women were galvanized was kind of your impetus to leave Planned Parenthood and to start something new?
Well, it was kind of that. One, I thought, “OK, I’ve done this for 12 years and someone else I’m sure has some new, good ideas.” I also felt that at Planned Parenthood we’d done a really good job of building a movement around a set of issues that women desperately care about, but there’s a lot more. Women are not a monolith. And I felt like if we could bring all the women that were working in reproductive health care together with the women who are working in the environmental field and the labor movement and public education, gun safety and immigration reform, and we actually had one big movement of women in this country, we could really make a big difference.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 21: From left, Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Cecile Richards, attend an early voting rally at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on September 21, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Richards at an early voting rally at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 2018. Photo credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

So that’s what you’re trying to organize?
Yeah. And that’s what we’ll be launching in April. I feel like it’s an exciting time for women. It’s a scary time, but it’s a time where women are just resolute about not just resisting, but building the world they want to live in. And, I mean, to your point, this isn’t about doing it for some future generation. It’s literally like: Now. Let’s build it now.

Part of what I’m struggling with is, how honest can I be about the normal, biological, true-life struggles that women have, without also feeling like a traitor to the feminist cause. Like, I don’t want people to think, oh, because I’m a mom and because I’m a woman I’m not going to be as on top of my game because maybe my baby is teething and I didn’t sleep the night before. And you had twins! Oh, my God!
Listen, it’s a lot. But that’s because we have a system that wasn’t built for us. Because exactly what you’re experiencing, every woman has, in some way. And why I think it’s so important that women are honest and say, “It’s not just work-life balance; we are trying to survive, and grow and be professionals in a system that honestly treats maternity care like it’s a burden and pregnancy like it’s some kind of crazy thing as opposed to [something that is] fundamental to millions of American women every single year.” We feel like we’re constantly having to compensate for the fact that we are women and we reproduce.

I love that story in the book of you hearing [on NPR] that kids’ brains develop the most the first three years of life, and stopping on the side of the road and thinking, “Should I turn around and go pick up my kids from daycare?” I love that you were honest about it.
We have to talk about it more because what we’re seeing with women is they just want to feel like they’re not crazy. It’s not just, “Give me the rulebook for how I can change the world,” but also, “I want to be with other women and have honest [conversations].” And all the convening we’ve done this year, half of it is skills-building and half of it is just women sharing their stories and the real, deeply personal struggles women are going through.

And if half of politicians were women, then these things would be normalized. You wouldn’t have to feel like a liability talking about it.
Right. You wouldn’t have to be so heroic just to simply say, “This is what I need in order to do my job or support my kids.”

Traveling around the country, everyone’s asked you “What can we do right now?” But what I want to ask you is what should we not be doing right now? Because I do think there’s a lot of anger — and anger can be galvanizing, it can be instructive — but is there some line we shouldn’t cross?
I don’t know that this is the right answer, but one of the things I find is that women are so emotionally distraught that there are women who are still supporting this administration. And I feel like that’s just sucking up our energy and emotional wellbeing.

As you said, sometimes our own sisters perpetuate oppression. 
And you know what? I feel like in this moment, it’s more important to reach out to all the women who actually have never been engaged, [rather than] focus on the small hardcore that don’t really want to move women forward. I don’t mean you shouldn’t be in conversation with everyone, but I just find that it’s really taking such an emotional toll. I mean, to have a president who is so dehumanizing of women, of LGBTQ people, of people of different religions and races and countries of origin? And so when you think of women that would actually cheer him on, it can be exhausting. I just think it’s more important to think about the women who we can build community with, because there are so many more.

It reminds me of being in the hearing before Congress: I could focus on the angry men pointing their fingers—

That was hard to watch.
Or I could focus on the millions of women who would never have the chance to be in that room, and who are just trying to figure out how to support their family, how to raise their kids, how to stay in the workforce. And as white women, obviously, we have a particular responsibility to take on the issues of race among other white women and to do that work, because it should not be on women of color to try to save us.

When people were asking what to do, some of the advice you gave in the book was, “Quit your job and go work for Stacey Abrams.”
Well, that was one idea.

But someone did it.
Yeah, someone did it! Exactly.

Who should we be quitting our job and going to work for now?
I think anyone who you believe in, because who knows who’s going to make it through this process. And the fact that we have a record number of women running for president, we have a record number of people of color running for president. No matter who you start volunteering for now, if they don’t make it through, you’re going to have more skills to help whoever the next person is. There’s never been a more dynamic primary system than there is right now. And I think there’s a lot of people to be excited about.

I’m excited that there’ll be women to compare against other women, instead of one woman to compare against a sea of men.
Yes. Well, and we have to demand that not just the women who are running for president, but the men who are running for president, talk about the issues that women care about.

I think they’re going to have to, right?
Well, that’s our plan. That’s what I’m hoping.

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