Cecile Richards: Going To Planned Parenthood Is Not A Political Statement

A century ago, Planned Parenthood started a sexual health revolution. Now, the question lingers: Could its 101st year be its last? A hostile Republican Congress has made withholding funding from Planned Parenthood a top priority in the nascent administration, painting the organization as a peddler of abortion the country can do without. This portrait is nothing new, but the intensity with which legislators are pursuing their target has ratcheted up a long simmering sense of conflict and urgency. Indeed, Planned Parenthood provides abortions—proudly, publicly, legally, and above all safely—but that’s not the only thing that concerns its president, Cecile Richards. She worries about the myriad other health services and education Planned Parenthood’s 650 health centers nationwide provide to nearly 5 million men, women, and teens a year, including more than a million people on Medicaid who rely on these clinics for contraception, preventive screenings, and STI tests and treatments. She worries about the 579,000 unintended pregnancies Planned Parenthood helps prevent each year.

On January 21, a day after President Trump’s inauguration, while millions gathered across the U.S. and the world in support of reproductive rights (among other things), Richards addressed protesters at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and declared, “We’re not going to take this lying down. And we will not go back.”

We spoke to Richards on the heels of her address about the role of Planned Parenthood in America’s health care system, and her fears and hopes for the future.

SELF: You’re no stranger to being threatened and attacked. How does it feel different now?

Cecile Richards: It feels different now for two reasons. The awareness of what’s at risk for women, particularly when Paul Ryan says he wants to—quote-unquote—defund planned parenthood, is really profoundly understood and felt across the country. We have been flooded with not only women wanting to get in to get birth control, but new activists wanting to join up. And of course at the march there was an enormous support for Planned Parenthood that was bigger than anything we have ever seen.

And the other point: We see two and a half million patients every year, and what Speaker Ryan threatened to do would mean that about half of them would no longer be able to come to us for care. Fifty-five million women in this country now have the right to no-cost birth control under their insurance plans, which really revolutionized access. In fact, we’re at a 30-year low for unintended pregnancy and a historic low for teenage pregnancy. That’s work that’s so important and we’re very proud of.

If Planned Parenthood closes clinics, can’t people can get equivalent treatment at community health centers?

It’s been clear from every organization that’s spoken about this issue that it’s absolutely ludicrous to think that they could absorb the patient population that Planned Parenthood sees. What we know is more than half of our health centers are in rural or underserved areas and serving a population that is already facing disproportionately lower access to health care. In 21 percent of the counties where we have a health center we’re the only safety net family planning provider. In 68 percent of the counties where we have a Planned Parenthood health center we serve at least half of the safety net family planning patients.

When it comes to family planning there isn’t enough access. If there is, it’s a long wait period. If you find a lump in your breast or you need birth control, waiting a month isn’t always the best option. We recognize that the need for this care is now. It’s not later. We’ve seen it in the state of Texas, where they made efforts to deny women access to Planned Parenthood: Many women’s health centers shut down, and we’ve seen a doubling of the maternal mortality rate. And in Vice President Pence’s home state of Indiana, there were five clinics that closed. Residents in one county were left with nowhere to go for HIV tests and they saw the [HIV] rates spike. That’s what’s really terrifying is that I feel like there are folks that make these glib political statements and really they’re not the folks that are going to face the results. Those are the patients that we’re most concerned about.

Donations poured into Planned Parenthood after the election. If you lose federal funding, could private donations keep the organization afloat?

We’ve always been supported by individuals, and frankly that’s necessary when you see low income populations because even when you receive Medicaid dollars it’s never enough to cover the needed care. Essentially what we’re talking about here, and what Congress is threatening, is replacing the federal health care system—Medicaid—with private donations and that just simply is not sustainable. It makes no sense. All we’re saying is that women and families on Medicaid should have the same right to choose their health care provider as members of Congress, that’s the principle. Two a half million people come to Planned Parenthood each year, voluntarily. It is really frightening to think that with one stroke of the pen this administration would shut down services to 1.2 million people [Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid patients]—primarily women—in this country, many of whom have been coming to us for years and for many of whom we’re their only health care provider.

There’s an oft-cited statistic that 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion services, yet you’re consistently portrayed as primarily an abortion provider. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to acknowledge the other work you do?

I think the vast majority of people do and that’s why our approval rating is [higher than] Congress’. There continues to be huge misrepresentation by politicians. Federal funds do not pay for abortions, neither at Planned Parenthood nor anywhere else. Now, I don’t agree with that policy but that’s the policy and that’s how we operate. There are people who continue to repeat information they know is false because frankly they don’t want abortion to be legal.

We do not shy away form the fact that we provide safe and legal abortion. We think it’s important that women have that option and we also think it’s important that women have all their other options, including the best kind of contraception they can get to reduce unintended pregnancy. It is really alarming to me that members of Congress, most of whom will never become pregnant or worry about an unintended pregnancy, are basically doing everything they can to deny women in this country the opportunity to plan their pregnancies. That is why we are supported by the vast majority of the American people, despite the efforts of some people in politics to tarnish our reputation. This is not about abortion. This is literally about telling women, “You cannot go to Planned Parenthood for family planning or any other preventive service.”

We’ve seen an outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood, recently at the Women’s March, and on social media. What more should supporters do to help keep Planned Parenthood open?

I think the most important thing that any member of the American public can do is contact their member of Congress. What’s important to me is what happens in the states, because that’s what informs what happens in Washington, D.C. The votes that will be taken—particularly in the United States Senate—are going to spell the difference of whether women have access to not only Planned Parenthood, but family planning going forward. Every single phone call that goes to a member of Congress makes an impact. In February all of these members of Congress are going to be back home. Write a letter, make a phone call or go visit your member of Congress and tell them that you don’t support this.

Going to Planned Parenthood is not a political statement. We have patients from every walk of life and every political persuasion. They come to us because they need affordable health care. It’s important that people of all parties come together to ensure that women do not lose access to care, including being able to choose Planned Parenthood as their health care provider.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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