The We Missed You Issue

Fight for Your (Reproductive) Rights: An Interview with Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood

"When politicians put their own politics ahead of the health and well-being of women, that's when you run into trouble."

by Vera Papisova
21 March 2016, 9:00am

Portrait by Chuck Grant

This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, is no stranger to the violence, intimidation, and legislation that has threatened the women's rights movement. Her mother, Ann Richards, was the second female governor of Texas, a vocal feminist, and a social justice leader. Like mother, like daughter, Cecile Richards is graceful and fierce, and her efforts to provide affordable health care have been both applauded and attacked.

VICE: Have you ever convinced an "antiabortion" person to become "pro-choice"?
Cecile Richards: I have seen elected officials in office, who may have been elected by saying that they were completely against abortion rights, change; and it's really happened because they have heard the stories of women—women in their own families, women constituents—who have told them about their situations. When people can develop empathy for others, it really helps break down this very rigid formulation that is essentially political.

During a congressional hearing last September, members of Congress cut you off you so many times that a mash-up video of the interruptions went viral. Even the haters were impressed by your poise.
Realising that I wasn't really there representing an organisation, or myself, I was just hoping to channel the millions of women who will never get the chance to speak up. Sometimes when other people are really being ridiculous, you just have to be quiet and let them do their thing. In many ways, I think some members of Congress really exposed, frankly, how little regard they have for women.

As president of the organisation, do you think your job would be easier if you were a man?
These issues are always going to be a challenge. I've never thought about that. The majority of folks who work at Planned Parenthood, here in the national office and around the country, are women. Of course, we have amazing men who work here. I feel that any guy who is so together that he can work at Planned Parenthood and help advance reproductive rights is really special. They're guys who really appreciate women.

When politicians put their own politics ahead of the health and well-being of women, that's when you run into trouble.

I noticed when I went to Planned Parenthood last, the patient form you fill out gives you the option of choosing your gender pronoun and identifying your gender. I've never seen that at any OB/GYN.
Now that we're celebrating 100 years, I look at how we've changed. To me, one of the exciting things is we have more folks coming to us—we're opening up trans services all over the United States. We opened a new centre in Asheville, and the clinicians talked about how excited they were to be able to provide trans services there—that folks were coming from over state lines because it was a good, nonjudgmental, safe place to go. The pride the clinicians felt, it was palpable.

Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest provider of sex education. Why is this an important initiative?
I think it's an important initiative for the country. It doesn't make sense to me that it's so political. The overwhelming majority of parents want their kids to get sex education, and they feel vastly under-equipped to provide it. I come from Texas, where, right now, its state policy is "abstinence only"—it doesn't really teach sex ed. It's worse now than when I was growing up there.

There's a direct correlation [between the services provided by Planned Parenthood] and reducing unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion. That's why we fought so hard for the Affordable Care Act to get no cost contraceptives.

We're at a 40-year low for teen pregnancy in the United States, and it's not because teens have quit being sexually active. It's because they get better sex education now, from a lot of sources, and they have better access to birth control.

So, what's going on in Texas?
It is really scary. There's a big case going before the Supreme Court (Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt), which will fundamentally decide whether the provisions that have been made to protect legal access to abortion still stand. In Texas, only the major cities, with very few exceptions, can provide safe and legal abortion.

So, if you're a woman who lives in rural Texas, you don't have the same rights to go to a local community doctor who you trust for what is a legal procedure in the United States. Now, we've fought these same laws in other states and won, but if Texas is allowed to go through, we will see similar bills across the country, and I think the real concern is then it will be a right but in name only, not in reality. We're already seeing the reports in Texas about the number of women who have tried to terminate a pregnancy on their own.

It's over 100,000.
Exactly. When politicians put their own politics ahead of the health and well-being of women, that's when you run into trouble. That's basically what we're seeing.