If Cecile Richards Can Take On Congress, Donald Trump Is A Piece Of Cake
In many ways, 2016 has been a good — even a really good — year for reproductive rights. In June, the Supreme Court's ruling in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt struck down two key provisions in Texas House Bill 2 (Texas HB 2), mandating that abortion clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and that physicians have admitting privileges at hospitals in the near vicinity. Then, just days later, a federal judge blocked an Indiana law restricting a woman's right to an abortion if the fetus had genetic abnormalities.
No one knows more about these recent victories for the reproductive rights movement than Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood — and likely no one appreciates them more than she does. Just over a year ago, Richards was testifying before Congress over secretly recorded videos that indicated Planned Parenthood clinics were trying to sell fetal tissue (the videos were widely criticized as deceptively edited and two of the people behind them were later indicted on felony charges related to the making of them).
Richards tells Bustle that she walked into what would be a grueling, more than five-hour hearing focused not on getting caught up in the personal attacks about her salary or inaccurate claims about Planned Parenthood's health services, but on accurately representing the women who rely on the organization's clinics and programs throughout the country.
"It was so abundantly clear there were a lot of people in Congress who didn't know what women's lives were like and they really didn't care," Richards tells Bustle. "If we could shed some light on what women go through in this country at this time and in this era, then I would maybe be advancing the ball a little bit. I'm not sure that I did, but I was really mindful of all the women — the 2.5 million patients who should have the chance to tell their stories before Congress."
In my admittedly biased opinion, Richards moved the ball more than "a little bit," and she nailed the Capitol Hill grilling. Considering that triumphant but certainly trying time, 2016 should leave Richards feeling good, maybe even relaxed?
Au contraire. Like any reproductive rights champion worth her salt, Richards knows there's still a long road ahead. In fact, she actually laughs when asked if the abortion rights movement is in the clear.
"In the clear?" she asks, somewhat incredulously. "Sorry, no, I just mean there are so many battles across the country and you know so many of the same ones."
"I can't for the day [soc when people can walk into a women's health center without having to face picketers and protesters, and people just recognize it's a woman's right to do what she needs to do for her health care."
That doesn't mean Richards isn't optimistic. In fact, the energy in her voice is striking. At the same, after serving as president of Planned Parenthood for a decade, she's also pragmatic about the constant stream of hurdles ahead. "We do believe there's a real opportunity now to push forward to repeal and challenge the many abortion restrictions that are out there on the state [level], but it's definitely going to be a fight."
However, although so many of the abortion battles occur on the state-specific level, when I ask Richards who she considers to be the gravest threat to the reproductive rights movement, she names the Republican presidential nominee and his running mate.
"Frankly, the choice of Mike Pence — a thoroughly undistinguished congressman who made a career crusading to defund Planned Parenthood — is a very scary prospect."
"I would say Donald Trump and Mike Pence are posing the biggest threat, not just to Planned Parenthood, but to reproductive rights," Richards says. "It's extraordinary to be in this moment and have a presidential ticket that supports overturning Roe v. Wade and that supports defunding Planned Parenthood."
Although Richards and I spoke before the third presidential debate, the Republican presidential nominee voiced opinions during it that lent credence to Richards' concerns — as if his one-time (albeit, later revised) claim that women seeking banned abortions should face "some form of punishment" wasn't enough evidence. During the debate, Trump reiterated his commitment to appointing pro-life judges which would "automatically" lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade (it wouldn't, actually).
Trump then attempted to invoke pro-life fears by setting his sights on late-term abortions and claiming that "in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby right out of the womb, just prior to the birth of the baby."
As The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler noted in his fact-checking of the debate, only 1.2 percent of all abortions even take place after 21 weeks and 43 states have some restrictions on third-term abortions, "so this is already a rare procedure that is prohibited in much of the country." Trump, however, made it seem like the norm and blithely overlooked the fact that the women who have late-term abortions often are facing their own life-threatening conditions or their fetuses have severe abnormalities that, if they survived birth, would result in short and painful lives.
Still, Trump's running mate may outdo him when it comes to promoting an anti-choice agenda. Pence has played an active role in promoting abortion access restrictions in his home state of Indiana, including the aforementioned restriction regarding abortions when there are fetal abnormalities.
Richards does not mince her words when it comes to Pence: "Frankly, the choice of Mike Pence — a thoroughly undistinguished congressman who made a career crusading to defund Planned Parenthood — is a very scary prospect," Richards says. According to Planned Parenthood's website, Pence has signed eight anti-abortion restrictions into law in the just-under-four years he's served as governor of Indiana.
"I look at what's happened in Texas, where they have put into place all that Pence and Trump are promising," Richards says, citing the report released in August that showed Texas not only had the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, but that it had doubled from 2010 to 2014 — which covers the period in which Texas HB 2 was passed and took effect. "We knew women were losing access to safe, legal abortion. We knew women were losing access to birth control and a lot else, but not they [Texas HB 2] is threatening to double the mortality rate."
But Richards sees an upshot in the vocal anti-choice crusade. "In a way, a lot of these attacks on abortion rights and Planned Parenthood have really just galvanized a whole new generation of activists," she tells me. She highlights the increase in Planned Parenthood supporters to more than 9 million people and how, according to and NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from July 2016, the organization's approval rating is higher now than it was before the controversial fetal tissue videos were released in 2015. "We could never have become, now, nine million and a quarter strong, without the attacks of Congress and without people taking action and fighting back."
Yet, with arguably more steam and attention than ever before, Richards has a simple goal for Planned Parenthood and the women of America.
"I can't for the day when people can walk into a women's health center without having to face picketers, and protesters and people just recognize it's a woman's right to do what she needs to do for her health care."