Recently, XRAY In The Morning had the pleasure of speaking with Cecile Richards about her tenure as the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, what it means to fight for human rights under the current administration, and her upcoming visit to Portland. Check out our transcribed conversation with her below, or listen back to it here!
Emily: Joining us now is the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, one of the founders of America Votes, and pro-choice activist Cecile Richards is coming to Revolution Hall on Tuesday, April 10th, at 7:30 to discuss her new book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead. Good morning Cecile.
Cecile: Good morning.
Emily: It’s a real honor to speak with you.
Cecile: I’m excited about coming to Portland.
Emily: We’re so excited to have you. I have a feeling you’re going to have a packed house. We are excited you’re coming. Make Trouble is a memoir. How did your upbringing in Texas influence the formation of your activism?
Cecile: Well I grew up in Dallas, and my parents were involved in the civil rights movement and the labor movement, and then of course when the women’s movement came along my mother really went crazy. They taught us from an early age that we had the opportunity to make a difference in the world, and so that’s what we tried to do. It’s wonderful to now kind of carry that forward in my work at Planned Parenthood with the millions of people who are making a difference in the lives of folks every single day.
Emily: What kind of continuities exist between your childhood, growing up in that household focused on activism, and your public life now?
Cecile: I think we were probably not like other families, at least in Dallas. The dinner table wasn’t where you ate. It was where you organized whatever precinct lists for whatever campaigns my folks were working on. I think the great thing about growing up in that environment is that politics wasn’t something that was unpleasant, or it wasn’t something that was a drag. It was actually where all the action was. Growing up fighting against the Vietnam war, and then went I went on to college having the chance to fight on issues of ending Apartheid in South Africa, and part of the anti-nuclear movement, I just feel like it’s been one long string of social activism.
That’s what I try to write about in my book. That being an activist is actually something that can not only change the world, but it can be incredibly joyful along the way.
Emily: Taking into consideration all of those different causes, all those different human rights issues that you just laid out, what’s been the biggest fight of your life?
Cecile: Definitely defending Planned Parenthood and the access to care that we provide has been what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years. It’s incredible to me that this day and time, we’re still arguing over things like access to safe and legal abortion and birth control. But certainly in this new Trump environment we are. But I’m so proud that this last year, that there was an outpouring of grassroots activism, including a lot there in Portland. Literally hundreds of thousands of people calling congress, showing up at town hall meetings. That was, it was really that grass roots wave of activism that has meant our doors have been able to stay open and Planned Parenthood. Each year now we continue to serve about 2.5 Million people with healthcare.
Many of the folks that we see of course, if they couldn’t come to Planned Parenthood they wouldn’t have another healthcare provider.
Emily: Right. I’ve gotten to know Stacey Cross who is the leader here locally.
Emily: But is now down in California. She came to Portland from Montana and talked about what you just said, which is women’s right to healthcare, especially in rural communities across the country, under your leadership at Planned Parenthood you’ve greatly increased the amount of engagement across our country. I think hopefully the Trump administration can feel the support that you all have gathered for women’s rights. What does the future of Planned Parenthood look like in the Trump era?
Cecile: I think that in a kind of ironic way, we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. We just celebrated our 100th anniversary. But I write about in the book the fact that we’ve grown from being an organization of 3 Million supporters just about a decade ago to now more than 11.5 Million. One way to look at it is, we’re actually now twice as big as the National Rifle Association. It’s been so exciting to see a whole generation of young people come into the organization.
But I definitely know that as I step aside and we choose a new president for Planned Parenthood, there’s going to continue to be battles ahead. But I’ve never felt the organization was stronger. Of course even if I step aside as president, I will be a lifelong donor, activist, supporter in every single way of this really important organization. It’s just amazing to see the difference it makes in the lives of people every day, to have access to affordable healthcare.
Emily: It’s easy to get discouraged in the fight for women’s rights. What sort of organizing have you seen or participated in to protect reproductive rights? How has that evolved? What’s working now to make sure that our rights are protected?
Cecile: I think one of the most important things that we’ve done over the last decade is invest in young people. Certainly Portland is a perfect example of that. Investing in young people not only as patients and make sure we’re providing them the information and care they need, but also investing in them as leaders and activists. That to me has given both new meaning to the organization. It’s increased our relevance to young people. As I think we’re seeing all across this country, that mobilization of teenagers across a whole set of issues has been really important.
The other piece of this though, and this is something that I know that folks understand there in Portland, and we certainly understand across the country, which is, it’s not enough just to fight for Planned Parenthood. One of the results I think of the last election is that now you’re seeing organizations and communities stand together. Because with Planned Parenthood we’re not only fighting for reproductive rights, but LGBTQ rights, and standing with Dreamers, and fighting for fair immigration policies in this country, and standing up with Black Lives Matter. I think it’s really important that we understand the barriers to people in this country to live their full life. They include reproductive healthcare, but they’re not limited to that. That to me is really the most important element of the organizing we all have to do going forward.
Emily: I know a lot of people ask you if you’re going to run for office. I’m not going to ask you that, but I will say I sure as heck hope that I get to see your name on a ballot someday and I get to vote for you.
Cecile: That’s really kind.
Emily: In 2017 when Neil Gorsuch was nominated there was a lot of fear of the more left leaning media that Roe vs Wade could be overturned or undermined. With many states taking action to defund Planned Parenthood or proposing restrictive bans on abortions, do you think any of these could become a legitimate legal threat to Roe vs Wade?
Cecile: I absolutely do. I think this is something where it is so frightening to see the really remaking of the federal judiciary under this administration. Judges are just sailing through that have, some that aren’t even supported by the American Bar Association, with some of the most extreme right positions. I do think it’s going to be incredibly important if there’s a vacancy on the supreme court, this is going to be the fight of our lifetime. Not just about Roe, but about the entire future of this country.
This administration has really tried to put their political stamp on the supreme court in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Of course president Trump himself has said that he is only putting forward judges who are, as he describes them, pro-life, and I would describe them as committed to taking away women’s right to make their own fundamental personal decisions about their pregnancies. This is something that I hope all the work we’re all doing right now, and on all the issues we’ve listed, that this is just a trial run for if there is in fact a supreme court nomination, it’s going to require all of us to mobilize like we’ve never done before.
Emily: Do you feel like pro-choice and pro-life camps are speaking past each other? Is there a possibility of reconciliation that protects women’s right to choose?
Cecile: Actually it’s interesting. What we’ve found at Planned Parenthood is that even the terminology, pro-choice, pro-life, is not relevant anymore. It is I think putting things in a political binary. Particularly something as personal as a decision about pregnancy. We have to take it out of political terms and really talk about it in a way that women and pregnant people experience this. That is, and we’ve found this in states that would be viewed as very very conservative like South Dakota and Mississippi, where there’s actually been efforts to ban abortion. When it was taken to the ballot, people overwhelmingly, the voters overwhelmingly defeated those efforts. Because they can absolutely understand that even though they have their own personal feelings about abortion and what they might do in a circumstance of an unintended pregnancy, they also recognize that they don’t want politicians and government making those personal decisions for women and people in their families.
That to me is, that is really where this country is. I keep hoping that we could work with the opponents of safe and legal abortion on some issues. But the very people that want to oppose access to abortion rights in this country are also working overtime to try to end access to birth control and the very things that prevent unintended pregnancy in the first place. But that is really the minority. The majority of this country believe in Roe. They believe in the right to safe and legal abortion. They overwhelmingly support access, not only access to birth control, but access to Planned Parenthood.
It was interesting. I think it was last week or maybe the week before. There was a poll by Fox News, which is not always the friendliest to our organization. Their own poll that they released showed that Planned Parenthood was the most popular organization in America.
Emily: Really interesting.
Cecile: It’s incredible. I mean, although it doesn’t surprise me. One in five women in this country have been to Planned Parenthood for healthcare, and for the vast majority of people in this country, they see Planned Parenthood actually as not the problem. They see Planned Parenthood as the solution.
Emily: In your tenure at the national level of Planned Parenthood, what kind of changes have you observed in the reproductive rights movement?
Cecile: I think embrace of what the reproductive justice movement has been fighting for a long long time, which is to understand that the ability to access reproductive care and a lot of other things isn’t based solely on laws or rights. It’s really a question of, who has access and who doesn’t? We’ve done a lot of work to try to expand access in states where, frankly, it’s just much tougher to get any kind of reproductive education, information, healthcare. Areas like my home state of Texas, and recognizing that the barriers to care, they include economic barriers. Folks who are immigrants have a much tougher time accessing affordable healthcare. The LGBTQ community as well.
I think it’s important that we actually lift up both the reproductive justice framework, and also understand how the intersection of all these issues can make a difference in whether people are able to live their best life. I really think that is a shift that I see has changed over the last 10 years. I think that we’re going in the right direction.
Emily: How has the opposition changed?
Cecile: How has the opposition changed? Well I think they have been effective in influencing this administration, and that’s very disturbing. They have a minority point of view, which is, they want to take away reproductive rights in this country. But they have huge political influence as we’ve seen in the Trump White House, in the Trump administration. I just think it means we have to get serious. To be not only healthcare providers, but also to be voters and to be activists, and to be moving the country forward in a political way.
When I leave Planned Parenthood, I’ll be a supporter of Planned Parenthood, but I’ll also be doing everything we can to elect progressive people to office. To elect women to office. To elect people who support women’s rights and reproductive rights, and making sure that this November, every single person we can get out to vote goes to the polls.
Emily: Absolutely. What’s your message to young women who are listening right now?
Cecile: This is your moment. I feel like the earth is shifting, and I have never seen the kind of mobilization that we are seeing today, in every aspect. Running for office. Starting organizations. Marching. Showing up at town hall meetings. I think my message really is, this is the time to do more than you ever thought you could, and make a difference in this country, and you probably will be the difference.
Emily: I love it. I was reading one of your interviews and you had mentioned something to the effect of, “You need to go before you’re ready”.
Cecile: That’s right.
I think that that’s more poignant even now. I think as women we wait for permission, or we want to make sure that we’re the right person. Now more than ever we are absolutely the right person and it’s time to go.
Emily: I agree. Now remind our listeners, when are you coming our way?
Cecile: I’m coming out there, in Portland I’ll be there April 10th on Tuesday at 7:30 at Revolution Hall. I’m so excited to be sponsored by Powell’s Books, one of my favorite bookstores, and to be in conversation with Andi Zeisler of Bitch Media. How great could that be?
Emily: It’s wonderful. Well Cecile, can’t wait to have you in our fair city next week. Thank-you so much for joining us.
Cecile: Thanks a lot.