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Cecile Richards and Alicia Menendez. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Doors stay open

“Roe v. Wade is the law of the land”: Cecile Richards continues the fight to preserve abortion rights

April 8, 2016

Cecile Richards is used to keeping her calm under pressure. Facing marathon questions from Congress last fall, the head of Planned Parenthood made headlines for her ability to stay focused in the eye of a political storm, with The Guardian praising her ability to “keep her cool” and The New York Times saying she “pushes back against G.O.P. critics.”

Now — as the Supreme Court considers its first abortion case in a decade, state legislatures debate dozens of laws restricting access to abortion, and presidential candidates call not just to defund Planned Parenthood but even to punish those who provide abortions to Americans — Richards is once again at the center of a political storm.

“We’ve continued despite everything that’s happened in the last nine months — doctored videotapes, congressional investigations, all the things that have happened. I’m so proud our doors have stayed open this entire time,” Richards said at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday, where she was welcomed with a standing ovation.

Cecile Richards and Alicia Menendez. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Cecile Richards and Alicia Menendez. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Richards told Fusion news anchor and correspondent Alicia Menendez that Planned Parenthood’s motto —“Care no matter what”— has seen the organization through the past year of challenges, from a shooting outside a clinic in Colorado that killed three people to lawmakers in Texas who have tried to shut the group down completely.

“It’s really important that we continue to do what we do best, which is provide health care,” she said, noting that Planned Parenthood has opened three new clinics in Texas despite the increased restrictions. “We say, ‘Our doors stay open,’ and they have, including in Colorado. I’m very proud of the clinicians for that.”

More than half a million activists, mainly young men and women, have signed up to work with Planned Parenthood in recent months, Richards said. On her way to the Summit, a young man recognized her on the subway and proclaimed, “I stand with Planned Parenthood.”

The battle for abortion rights is larger than just Planned Parenthood, she said, noting the crucial importance of the Supreme Court’s decision on Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The Texas case could have devastating consequences for abortion clinics across the country if the court upholds its groundbreaking anti-abortion laws. “Roe versus Wade is the law of the land. It’s a constitutional right,” Richards said. “But I believe very firmly that it’s not a right if you can’t access it. What is really before the court is [whether] the state, like the state of Texas, [can] write bills and laws that are so extreme that it effectively ends this constitutional right for women.”

Richards attended the oral arguments in the case earlier this spring and said she was struck by the presence of the three female Justices now sitting on the Court. “I was so proud to be there with three women on the Supreme Court. I don’t know if you all can appreciate what it has meant to finally begin to have some equity on the court and actually have the court begin to look more like America. We need to do more of that, and I can’t wait until we have a ninth judge,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a female majority on the Supreme Court?” she added, to applause.

Presidential candidates as well as state legislators have made abortion a centerpiece of their campaigns. In 2015, more than 500 proposed laws restricting access to abortion were introduced at the state level. Nearly 60 of those laws were enacted across 17 different states.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, September 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, September 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

At the center of the efforts to restrict access was an ongoing conversation about defunding Planned Parenthood, which all three Republican presidential candidates have vowed to do. Last week, Donald Trump went so far as to call for women to “face some sort of punishment” for having abortions. He later retracted the statement, saying instead that doctors should face punishment for performing abortions. “I take them very seriously,” Richards said of the threats to make abortion illegal again. “But honestly I’m just so sick of men telling us what to do with our bodies, and I would include Donald Trump in that category.“

Planned Parenthood’s political action fund has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, a decision Richards said came down to choosing the candidate who had the best record on pushing for access to healthcare for children and women and a commitment to women’s rights.

Richards criticized Trump, Cruz, and former candidate Carly Fiorina for employing “heightened rhetoric” around abortion to win points on the campaign trail. “The people of America don’t like when politicians put their own personal politics ahead of the health and lives of women,” she said.

Still, Richards said it was important that Trump inadvertently opened up a national dialogue about whether Americans really think abortion should be illegal and what society would look like if women and doctors were investigated and punished for abortions.

Despite the political rhetoric, Richards said she sees a cultural shift taking place in America, with open dialogue about abortion taking place on the television show Scandal and in magazines such as Ebony and Elle. The young men and women growing up today will be a “judgment-free” generation, she predicted.

In the face of attacks at the state and federal level, Richards says she is “not going back” to the 1950s, “or even the 1890s,” regarding access to abortion and healthcare — a resolve that she may have inherited from her mother, former Texas governor Ann Richards.

“If even in some tiny way I get to carry on her legacy and the work she and her whole generation did to give us rights, that feels pretty good,” Richards said.

Watch the whole interview with Cecile Richards here.