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Planned Parenthood’s President On Reproductive Rights: “These Issues Shouldn’t Be Partisan Issues”

Almost a century into Planned Parenthood’s history and after almost a decade as its president, Cecile Richards still embraces controversy.

Planned Parenthood’s President On Reproductive Rights: “These Issues Shouldn’t Be Partisan Issues”
Tell your story: Social media has helped Planned Parenthood’s clients share their experiences. “Not every story is a tragedy.” [Photo: Elinor Carucci]

Fast Company sat down with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards to discuss crises, politics, and good female mentors.

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Fast Company: Planned Parenthood has endured its share of crises in the nine years since you became president—everything from defeats in the courts and in Congress to the murder of George Tiller in 2009. How do you handle that as an organization?

Cecile Richards: We were born in controversy. [Planned Parenthood] started before birth control was even legal, so I don’t think controversy is something that rocks the organization. That said, I think the difficulty is, when there are always potential crises, how do you figure out if you’re spending enough time on offense as you are on defense?

Four years ago, when the new Congress came in, they took a whack at Planned Parenthood. [They] wanted to basically eliminate the ability of millions of women to come to Planned Parenthood health centers for preventative care. It wasn’t that it rocked the organization, but for our patients . . . many of these women, we’re the only health care provider they have. But we are good at taking lemons and making lemonade—Dawn Laguens, who runs our Washington operation, says we’re like a permanent lemonade stand. Patients, former patients, current patients came out of the woodwork [to offer their support]. It was like this enormous alumni association of Planned Parenthood. Oh, my God, it was great.

So you use a crisis to organize donors, supporters, rally the troops?

Right. If you look at the past four years—which were tough in the political environment—we’ve added 3.5 million new supporters.

In his profile of you for the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin pointed out precisely that paradox: Donations are up, volunteer support is up, and your name is out there in a bigger way than it has ever been before. Yet what’s happened in the courts and in certain states seems to be in direct opposition to Planned Parenthood’s goals. What’s going on there?

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There are a number of issues where we’re taking a hit, but I think that’s when you have a clean opportunity to say, “Okay, what really matters?”

Courts take a long time to make shifts, but even this last election to me was a marked difference from four years ago. Both Democrats and Republicans [were] positioning themselves with women voters as being for women’s health. You had Republicans running for Senate running ads about how much they were for birth control. Folks of both parties are recognizing that we’re talking about the future.

If you zoom out, where is feminism right now? And where do you fit into that?

Look, when Beyoncé says she’s a feminist, this is no longer a fringe movement. To me, the important thing isn’t so much about the word feminism as much as, in this country, we believe that women should be equal partners in society. All kinds of issues are now getting a whole lot of attention. There are a number of reasons for that, but I do think that social media allows people who didn’t get to tell their stories before [now] to tell their stories in lots of ways. That’s exciting.

On the social media front, I looked through some of the things people tweet at you…

Oh, wow.

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Right. You clearly have to develop tough skin. But how has social media been an asset for you?

It’s been incredible. When [the House of Representatives] really went after Planned Parenthood, it was social media that drove the story to the front page of the Times. I remember one night, Glenn Beck said that only hookers went to Planned Parenthood, and immediately, our Facebook page exploded with non-hookers who were patients. I had this woman from North Carolina who wrote, “I guess he doesn’t know that us military wives go to Planned Parenthood when the doctor on base can’t see us.” Social media has allowed us to demonstrate that Planned Parenthood is ­really in the fabric of communities all across this country.

Has the tone of the conversation changed?

Yes. So many things have become hyperpartisan, [but] this isn’t about a political battle. In fact, these issues shouldn’t be partisan issues. The millions of patients we see each year, they’re not coming because they want to make a political statement. They’re coming because they need high-quality and affordable reproductive health care. The women and men who support Planned Parenthood come from every walk of life, and I think that’s how you take this out of this back-and-forth political divide.

There’s also an interesting young-male piece. Women of my generation, we had these moms who had a briefcase in one hand and a baby in the other, who believed, “My little girl can do anything.” But a lot of men did not have a role model for “You can cook, be a stay-at-home dad.” What’s happening with Planned Parenthood and young men?

It’s one of our fastest-growing demographics. They come mostly for STD treatment and testing. A lot of places, if you want nonstigmatized and nonjudgmental care, you come to Planned Parenthood.

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And then on the activist side, it has radically shifted. Four years ago, half of the activists we added were men. I look at my own son. He was just doing his own thing, and next thing I knew, he texted me that he was in a van going to Ohio to rally support for Planned Parenthood. That’s when I knew: Wow, this is a movement. It’s not just about Planned Parenthood. It’s about sexual health and rights. They’re not a women’s issue exclusively.

So much of Planned Parenthood’s history has been driven by advances in technology: the birth of the pill, the development of IUDs. What is the next push going to be?

At Planned Parenthood, we see somewhere between 2.5 million to 3 million patients in our clinics each year, [but] we now see 6 million per month online—minimum. We’re able to chat with someone who may not live near a health center, or can’t pick up the phone, or they just need someone to talk to on their terms. All the things we’re able to do now take down the barriers between “Wow, I know I need birth control” and getting it. The next generation, they don’t want to wait for anything. They don’t want to wait for something to download, they don’t want to wait for someone to give them a ride to the mall, they want something right now, and that to me is a huge opportunity for Planned Parenthood. I remember eight years ago, being able to type your zip code [into a search engine] and get a Planned Parenthood, that was a radical concept at the time. Now we’re the Fandango of reproductive health care.

Your mother was Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, and you worked with Nancy Pelosi for a time. How do you wrap in your legacy and past experiences with this job?

I feel like I’ve just been incredibly fortunate to have awesome mentors. But also, because I have seen women in politics a lot, it’s made me really appreciate Planned Parenthood, because it hovers above a lot of the political fray. Today, dozens of women are walking into Planned Parenthood health centers all over this country regardless of what is happening in Congress, and they’re counting on us.

Is that a liberating thought?

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Are you kidding me? It’s huge. We’re not fighting political battles just to get a tally of win-losses. It’s because it actually does matter in women’s lives. That’s a rare thing.

I try to remind people that Margaret Sanger was thrown into jail 99 years ago for handing out a pamphlet that now 6 million people on our website have access to. Not that long ago, young women were dying in emergency rooms from abortions, and now abortion is one of the safest medical treatments for women. Even when I came here, [we were] fighting to get birth control covered in insurance programs at all. Now it’s not just in insurance plans, it’s covered at no cost. Of course, we have a lot of things we have to fight, but we’re going in the right direction.