It’s hard to shock Cecile Richards.
As the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she’s seen anti-choice activists break the law repeatedly in attempts to bring down her organization. They’ve illegally recorded employees, threatened patients, and resorted to horrific violence — from bombing clinics to murdering health care providers — in their efforts to keep women from accessing Planned Parenthood’s services.
But during a Congressional hearing in September 2015, Richards found herself surprised by the proceedings. The hearing, which was ostensibly to discuss illegal, doctored videos taken by anti-Planned Parenthood extremists, instead opened the floor for politicians to bombard Richards with anti-choice lines of questioning. What shocked her at that hearing was “the total lack of empathy for women in America,” Richards said during a conversation with Tina Brown at a Women in the World Salon in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “The real lack of interest in what our patients face, why women would come to Planned Parenthood, why millions of women in this country need access to affordable birth control. That part really did shock me. I thought if it was a hearing, they’d be there to hear someone — but it was, much more I thought, just for people to get out their political points.”
Richards spoke frankly about the hostile political climate currently surrounding women’s health care. “It is the most extreme wing of the Party that has taken over the Republican Party,” she said.
“Even moderate Republicans, who support Planned Parenthood, support women’s rights — I think it’s traditional, conservative Republicans who believe in small government who have have lost their voice. It’s a shame. It’s a disservice to our democracy, and I look forward to the day when women’s health is not a partisan issue in America.”
In Richards’ home state of Texas, abortion clinics are being shuttered with alarming frequency. In the rest of the country as well, anti-choice legislators continue to introduce laws that put backbreaking restrictions on Planned Parenthood’s clinics, often forcing them to close.
“I do think it’s gotten uglier politically,” said Richards, “and that’s really disturbing.”
In an election year, much of this anti-women’s health rhetoric is coming from presidential hopefuls, she noted. “You can’t help but look at the presidential candidates and say: What century are they living in?” She added that politicians’ inflammatory speechifying about Planned Parenthood has exacerbated a culture of dangerous misogyny.
In response to a direct question from Brown, Richards said a Kasich presidency for women would be “a complete and utter disaster.”
“I think it’s really important because Governor Kasich has sort of come off as a moderate — and I guess only by comparison to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — but it is really important to know, in Ohio more than half the providers of safe and legal abortion have had to shut down,” she said. “He’s signed 17 separate bills to restrict reproductive access in the state. It’s really rivaling Texas as the worst place for women to get access to healthcare and so we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure folks know about his record and where he really stands.”
“Words matter, and what people say matters,” said Richards, when quizzed about renewed violence perpetrated against women’s health centers across the country. “And when you have months and months and months of politicians — people who want to run for President of the United States, who want to be President of the United States — talking about Planned Parenthood the way they have … I think it’s really incumbent on us as a country to really think carefully about what the impact of our words and our statements are.”
As a woman from Texas, Richards noted that she’s seen the worst that political punditry can do. She cautions that the problems that have plagued Texas — including the closing of clinics, and a reduction in health care services for both men and women — could happen in the rest of the country if the vote goes to an anti-choicer this November.
“When I look at what’s happened in Texas, I think it’s a cautionary tale for what’s being promised by some of these folks running for president,” she said of her home state. “First they tried to get rid of Planned Parenthood by shutting down the women’s health program, which closed dozens of health centers.”
Most of those centers weren’t even Planned Parenthoods, she said, and yet “hundreds of women lost access to basic health care; not abortion services, but birth control and cancer screenings.”
That’s meant more unintended pregnancies, women crossing the border to seek abortions, and an increase in the number of women who are trying to self-abort. Of this “heartbreaking,” situation, Richards said she believes “we’re better than that, as a country.”
The stakes this presidential election are high. “I think that when folks vote this November, literally Roe v. Wade is on the ballot,” she said. “The impact the next president will have in appointing justices, and what their attitudes are towards women, is going to be critical and determinative — and not just for a couple of years but for a long, long time.”