Cecile Richards: Grace Under Fire at Planned Parenthood

Cecile Richards: Grace Under Fire at Planned Parenthood

Richards faces down attacks that may yet backfire on the right. 

December 17, 2015

This article will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here.

On a warm Tuesday morning in late September, Cecile Richards, the 58-year-old president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, went before Congress to defend her organization. A few months earlier, the Center for Medical Progress, an undercover anti-abortion group, had released a series of doctored videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood illegally profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood denied the accusations, but outrage spiraled furiously among conservatives. Republican officials launched state and federal investigations, while presidential candidates and members of Congress called for defunding Planned Parenthood entirely, threatening to shut down the government if their demands were not met.

Riding this whirlwind of righteous anger, Republicans eagerly anticipated their confrontation with Richards. Yet when she came before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republicans suddenly found Richards grilling them, not the other way around. “Mr. Chairman, you and I do disagree about whether women should have access to safe and legal abortion,” she said, staring into the eyes of Jason Chaffetz, the Republican from Utah who chaired the hearing. “At Planned Parenthood, we believe that women should be able to make their own decision about their pregnancies and their futures—and the majority of Americans agree. We trust women to make these decisions in consultation with their families, their doctors, and their faith, and not by Congress.”

A week later, Chaffetz admitted that after formally investigating Planned Parenthood, he and his colleagues had been unable to find any evidence of financial wrongdoing. Eight states that launched their own investigations have also failed to produce any smoking guns. The absence of evidence, however, hasn’t deterred GOP-controlled state governments from attempting to cut funds for Planned Parenthood, or moderated Republicans’ demonization of the organization.

These attacks, though, have only inspired Planned Parenthood’s supporters to rally to its defense. Three days before Richards testified, a progressive coalition delivered a petition in support of Planned Parenthood to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren; it had more than 1.2 million signatures. On the day of Richards’s testimony, hundreds of thousands of advocates across the country organized rallies and Internet campaigns to demonstrate solidarity, in what would be Planned Parenthood’s first ever “National Pink Out Day.”

The clout and moral credibility that Planned Parenthood has added under Richards’ leadership were evident in December when Republican plans to use the budget resolution to defund the organization and curtail abortion rights largely came to naught. A unified Democratic Party was also able to derail GOP proposals to reduce spending on women’s health and family planning.  

In 2016, the battle over reproductive rights will almost surely grow more intense. The Supreme Court is set to rule on two major cases: one concerning contraception coverage, and the other on abortion access. The latter, both sides agree, may be the most consequential case for abortion rights since 1992, when the high court ruled that states could not impose an “undue burden” on women who wish to end a pregnancy. State legislatures, which enacted 288 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2015, will no doubt continue to test the limits of what such “undue burdens” really mean.

2016 also marks the centennial anniversary of Planned Parenthood, an organization that has become the target of an anti-abortion movement that steadily grows more aggressive and violent. The FBI reported an increase in the number of arson attacks and vandalism incidents at abortion clinics in the wake of the Center for Medical Progress videos, and the president of the National Abortion Federation said abortion providers have seen “an unprecedented increase in hate speech and threats” since the videos were released. In late November, a man opened fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, injuring nine people, and killing three. After the shooting, the suspected gunman invoked the doctored videos, telling local authorities, “no more baby parts.”

Richards, who has spent a decade at Planned Parenthood’s helm, toils at ground zero of the culture wars being fought across the country. Every day she is flooded with hundreds of hateful messages on social media, calling her evil, a Nazi, a monster, a murderer. In 2006, Jim Sedlak, the vice president of American Life League and one of the nation’s most ardent Planned Parenthood critics, predicted she would never last more than a year or so as Planned Parenthood’s leader. (A mere “place holder” president, he dubbed her.)

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Richards speaks at a rally in Englewood, Colorado, a few days after three people were murdered at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. 

Yet ten years later, Richards remains self-assured in her post, guiding the nation’s largest reproductive-rights organization through the most politically fraught period it’s ever faced. She comes well-suited for the challenge. Richards brings to her role decades of experience in political organizing, and a career as a premier coalition builder across liberal America. She brings as well a strategic and moral vision that has impelled her to push Planned Parenthood beyond where it’s been, to lead more forcefully in the broader cultural and economic battles for women’s autonomy and equality.


IN 2006, JUST THREE WEEKS after Richards started her new job as Planned Parenthood’s president, South Dakota’s governor signed a bill outlawing abortion, the nation’s first state-legislated ban. (It was soon struck down in federal court.) “Listen, the reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century,” she told The Washington Post that year. “Clearly, with some folks in the country, we're going to get there kicking and screaming.”

Hiring Richards, in many ways, signified a new moment for Planned Parenthood. The abortion issue had been growing increasingly more politicized and polarized since the mid-1980s. (In the 1970s, the share of pro-life Democrats actually exceeded that of Republicans.) The partisan polarization of recent decades first became evident in 1984, and by the 1990s, political scientists were noticing a new and statistically significant relationship between voters’ abortion attitudes and whom they cast their ballot for in elections.

The three presidents who preceded Richards came in with backgrounds in health care, nursing, and Planned Parenthood itself. Richards’s resume, on the other hand, listed years of experience in organizing, campaigning, and electoral politics. While Planned Parenthood had been inching toward political advocacy in the 15 years before Richards arrived, she came in prepared to steer Planned Parenthood to the front lines.

In practice, this meant investing more in strategic communications and developing a new generation of youth leadership; it also meant engaging more forcefully in political campaigns. In 2008, Planned Parenthood endorsed Barack Obama for president—its second presidential endorsement ever—and Richards spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. That same year, the organization launched the One Million Strong Campaign—a massive effort to mobilize pro-choice voters. Partnering with Catalist, a progressive voting database, Planned Parenthood worked to build the first national voter model designed to specifically target pro-choice women.

Planned Parenthood’s political spending has also increased throughout Richards’s tenure. While the organization’s overall election spending has grown, its direct campaign expenditures have also come to represent a larger piece of the pie. Today, with Richards shaping its political programs, the organization not only spends more money in elections, but it also takes greater control over how its money is spent.  

For its critics, these efforts serve as incriminatory proof that Planned Parenthood falsely bills itself a woman’s health-care network. Richards does not buy these accusations, but she can’t readily ignore them either. As both the CEO of one of the biggest national health-care organizations, which relies substantially on government reimbursements, and as the leader of a massive nonpartisan political outfit, engaged in one of the most polarized fights in the United States, Richards must always remain extra careful to keep the organization’s two halves legally separated, particularly when Republicans control both Congress and a majority of state governments. Forty percent of Planned Parenthood’s $1.3 billion in annual revenue comes from Medicaid and Title X, a federal family-planning program.

“Cecile had to grow into her [role] as CEO of a major health-care provider, that was something she had to learn,” says her husband, Kirk Adams, who served as vice president of the Service Employees International Union and is now executive director of the Healthcare Education Project in New York. “But on the other hand, she has always been first and foremost an organizer, and she continues to do that at Planned Parenthood at a very high level. It’s just fundamentally how she approaches a problem.” 

As an organizer, Richards looks at the numbers—one in five women in the U.S. have relied on Planned Parenthood at some point in their life for health care. Learning how to motivate those patients to become advocates, volunteers, and pro-choice voters is what makes Planned Parenthood a “movement” in a way that your local hospital is not.

This strategy carries certain risks, but if you ask Richards how the politics and the direct health services fit together, her eyes light up. “We’re a better health-care provider because we’re a movement that advocates and pushes forward, and we’re a better movement because we have real experience every day with folks coming in and asking for care,” she says, grinning. This symbiosis, she’s convinced, only makes the organization stronger.


THE REALPOLITIK INHERENT in Richards’s vision of Planned Parenthood has at times created tensions with other parts of the reproductive-rights movement. This was evident during the 2009 health-care reform debates, when the entire law seemed to hinge on whether Congress could find a political compromise around abortion. Richards and Planned Parenthood were at the center of the debate, fighting fiercely for the law’s passage. Richards took great pains to emphasize that covering contraception and women’s general health services—or 97 percent of what Planned Parenthood does—were the organization’s primary priorities. In effect, she accepted that abortion would not be treated like all other health-care services during those very heated, public fights.

In the end, to the frustration of many reproductive-rights advocates, legislators passed the historic health care law with a provision that permitted states to ban abortion coverage in private plans in their state insurance markets. Today, 25 states have done just that.

Pro-choice members of Congress shared Richards’s sense of what was politically possible. “It appeared questionable that the Affordable Care Act would pass, up until literally the last hours, because of the issue of abortion,” recalls Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. “I think the ACA is as good as it can be; I think we did what we had to do if we had any hopes of passing the bill. I do not think we compromised too greatly or too soon: This was down to the wire on the day that the legislation passed.”

Erin Matson, the co-founder of Reproaction, a reproductive-rights activist group, disagrees. The health-care reform debate, she says, is a perfect case study in why reproductive-rights advocates lose. “The whole strategy from pro-choice leaders [during the ACA debates] was ‘Let’s just be reasonable.’ Give me a break! When has that ever stopped the right?” Matson believes the women’s movement has been too co-opted by the Democratic Party, and that Planned Parenthood’s strategy of stressing that “just 3 percent” of their services were abortion-related “was a classic example of accepting that abortion is shameful.”

AP Photo/David Longstreath/stf

Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards after delivering the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, holding her granddaughter Lily as Cecile looks on. 

Nonetheless, the Affordable Care Act has brought about tremendous advances for women’s health. Insurance companies can no longer consider pregnancies “pre-existing conditions,” and more preventative services are now covered under health insurance. In 2011, the White House issued a new regulation adding birth control to the list of mandatory services an employer’s group health plan must offer, providing a major economic lifeline to millions of women.


AT A TIME WHEN the reproductive wars have become a key driver of the country’s political divisions, Richards’s background and experience leave her supremely well-positioned to lead Planned Parenthood. Born in Waco, Texas, in 1957, Richards lived most of her early childhood in Dallas until her parents relocated their family—Cecile, then 11, and her three younger siblings—to Austin. While her mother, Ann Richards, Texas’s one-term governor in the early 1990s, was a heroic figure to liberals across America, her father, David, was also somewhat of a state icon. An unapologetic labor and civil-rights lawyer, David litigated many social justice cases, including a voting-rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richards likes to say her house was just like any other, except the dining table was used for stuffing envelopes and sorting precinct lists, rather than eating. (This isn’t quite true: The Richards family often threw big dinner parties, perhaps one reason why Cecile loves to cook and bake.) But it is true that she was politicized at a young age. Her first dance, at age 12, was a fundraiser for the United Farm Workers. By the time she was in middle school, administrators were reprimanding her for wearing a black armband in protest against the Vietnam War.

In 1972, Sarah Weddington, a young feminist lawyer based in Austin, decided to run for state legislature. Weddington asked Ann Richards, who worked as a housewife, to help manage her campaign. Cecile, then 14, worked with her siblings and mom to help get Weddington into office. (Not long after her victory, Weddington would go on to present the oral argument in Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, the momentous suit that legalized abortion in the United States.)

As an undergrad at Brown University, Richards continued to direct her energies toward activism. On campus, she protested apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear power plants in New Hampshire. “It’s not like college got in the way of her organizing,” her brother Dan once quipped.

After graduation, Richards went to work in the labor movement. She spent the next decade organizing janitors, garment workers, hotel housekeepers, and nursing home staffers in Louisiana, California, and Texas. That experience, she says, provided her with “really the biggest education I ever had.” Those low-wage workers, she notes, are very much the same women who rely on Planned Parenthood for health care.

The values Richards learned in the labor movement are the same ones that inform her vision of Planned Parenthood. “It’s not only about direct services, which is incredibly important, but it’s also about empowering the folks who are turning to [us] for health care,” she says. “When you think of how many people have been to Planned Parenthood in this country, from every walk of life, if those patients were empowered to participate in our democracy, a lot of the conversations that are happening in Congress right now would not be happening.” Richards wants to provide women not only with STD screenings, abortions, and pap smears—she also wants to help those patients find their political voice.

In 1982, she met Kirk Adams, a fellow union organizer. She became his boss, and three years later, his wife. In 1990, Richards and Adams worked on Ann Richards’s gubernatorial campaign, and stayed in Austin throughout Ann’s time in office. After one term in the statehouse, George W. Bush beat her in a landslide in 1994.

Her mother’s loss was painful, but Richards didn’t rest for long. She founded a new grassroots organization in 1995, the Texas Freedom Network, which aimed to curb the growing influence of the Texas religious right, particularly those activists seeking control of the school boards. “She always put herself in the line of fire, fighting for the most progressive values, in tough places, and in tough times,” says Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL-CIO political director. It was no easy fight, and Richards received heaps of vitriol from well-funded conservative opponents, foreshadowing her time at Planned Parenthood. Undeterred, she traveled all over Texas, rallying like-minded supporters who opposed teaching Bible stories in science class, expanding abstinence education in schools, and using public vouchers to send children to private schools. The Texas Freedom Network “started as a file box of names in Cecile’s kitchen and grew to many thousands of people,” her successor told the Texas Monthly in 2004.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Placards are waved as Cecile Richards speaks in Englewood, Colorado on December 5, 2015. 

Later on, Richards, Adams, and their three kids moved to Washington, D.C., so Adams could take a national position with the AFL-CIO. In 2002, Richards took a job working as deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi, who was named Democratic whip in the House. Richards held that position for 18 months, though she says the experience helped her realize she was better suited to effect change from outside Congress, rather than within.


WHEN RICHARDS LEFT Capitol Hill in 2003, she took a job leading a new organization, America Votes—a coalition of progressive organizations that would work together to turn out voters for the 2004 presidential election. There had always been big, active progressive organizations, but their leaders mostly operated in silos, and did not talk to, or even know, one another. I asked Steve Rosenthal, one of America Votes’s founders, why they picked Richards to head this unprecedented $250 million effort.

“We thought we needed someone who was politically astute, who had the ability to work with people at a very basic level, who could get the trust of the organizations and mobilize them all into a new organization,” he says, explaining there was “really nobody else” they could have imagined fitting the bill.

At America Votes, Richards continued to do what she did best: organize. Specifically, she coordinated an electoral strategy among the nation’s largest and most influential unions and progressive groups—ranging from the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP, to the Sierra Club and NARAL. She sought to help leaders understand how their efforts were, and really always have been, interconnected. She helped delineate which demographic and geographic groups each organization would target, and which would be most effective in delivering a message to a particular set of voters and getting them to the polls. It was a level of coordination hitherto unknown among the nation’s progressive organizations, and putting it together required diplomatic skills of the highest order.

Another innovation progressives introduced in the 2004 campaign was an effort to specifically target single women. The organization Women’s Voices Women Vote had recently formed, and aimed to draw attention to unmarried women, a growing political constituency largely ignored by progressives in previous cycles. Page Gardner, the group’s founder, pointed to the 22 million single women eligible to vote in 2000 who did not cast ballots. Single women, Gardner found, more strongly identify as “pro-choice” than married women. This mattered, as reproductive rights were already a major issue in the 2004 campaign, with critical judicial appointments on the line.

Despite these novel efforts, however, George W. Bush was re-elected, and the future of America Votes hung in the balance. Some of the biggest funders and backers wanted to scrap the project, and start with something fresh for 2008. Richards, who recognized how important this type of initiative was for the progressive movement, began appealing to all the major donors and partners, to convince them that this was not a project to abandon. “Just to be totally blunt, Cecile is the reason the organization still exists,” says Rosenthal. Greg Speed, the current president of America Votes, agrees. “I thought it was going to end after 2004,” he admits. “Cecile didn’t let that happen.”

I asked Richards why she felt it was so important to keep the organization alive after John Kerry lost. “How could we go back to a day where everybody goes, ‘Oh we’ll just do our own thing and see how it works out?’” she answers. “[2004] was really the first time that a lot of these big progressive groups had ever sat at the table together, and thought, ‘OK, how can we do our work in a smarter way, use our resources better, learn from each other?’ It was fascinating because not only did people build relationships that they perhaps did not have before, but there were even heads of progressive groups that had never door-knocked before that election!” Richards thinks one of the most important legacies of that campaign was building a common understanding of what grassroots advocacy and mobilization is really about.

When America Votes first formed, Planned Parenthood was only just beginning to dip its toe into politics. Though its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a radical birth-control activist in the early 20th century, Planned Parenthood itself eventually grew to be seen as a responsible, noncontroversial organization; family planning was considered bipartisan, sensible policy after World War II. Indeed, for many years Planned Parenthood garnered strong support from elite members of the Republican Party: Barry Goldwater’s wife was a founding member of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Arizona.

These political dynamics began to change after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and the religious right, a strongly anti-abortion faction within the Republican Party, increased its power over the course of the 1980s. In response, Planned Parenthood established a political arm in 1989, and a political action committee in the late 1990s. In 2000, Planned Parenthood started to experiment with ads in battleground states, and by 2004, it made its first-ever presidential endorsement.

In deepening the organization’s political activities and solidifying its place in the progressive universe, Richards has drawn on her experience at America Votes. “To see how much [Planned Parenthood] has changed, even in the past ten years … I’m not saying that’s all a result of America Votes, but it certainly opened my eyes to what the opportunities were, partnering with a lot of these organizations,” she says. “In some ways, that was probably part of the reason I came to Planned Parenthood.”


IN 2010, THE TEA PARTY soared to power, running on promises to dismantle the new health-care law, cut taxes, and ban abortions. In 2011, as the new crop of conservatives took power in statehouse after statehouse, those lawmakers introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, of which 135 were enacted in 36 states by the year’s end. Ninety-two of the new provisions restricted access to abortion, shattering the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions adopted in 2005. In Congress, the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and threatened to shut down the government entirely if a rider to defund the organization was not included in the federal budget deal. Congressional Republicans have been trying to defund Planned Parenthood ever since.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Planned Parenthood supporters rally for women's access to reproductive health care on "National Pink Out Day'' at Los Angeles City Hall, Tuesday, September 29, 2015. 

Republicans also started pushing for “religious freedom” exemptions for businesses and insurance companies, so that they would not have to offer birth control under their plans. As Katha Pollitt notes in her 2014 book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, despite the fact that reliable contraception remains the most effective way to prevent abortion, “not one major anti-abortion organization supports making birth control more available, much less educating young people in its use.” In 2014, after a series of legal challenges, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations could be exempt from providing employees with contraceptive coverage. This summer, the Supreme Court will decide if the government can even require nonprofits simply to fill out a form if they object to the birth-control mandate on religious grounds. “We've always known that the right wing has been anti-abortion but some people thought, well, that doesn't extend to contraception,” says Schakowsky. “We know better now. … That was made clear for the world after the Affordable Care Act.”

In early 2012, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, under pressure from conservative activists and with a new anti-abortion senior vice president, announced that it would no longer fund breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. The backlash was swift and unprecedented—Planned Parenthood raised $3 million in three days, and a deeply embarrassed Komen reversed its decision within the week. A whole new generation of supporters moved to social media to defend Planned Parenthood and express their outrage.

While Planned Parenthood and its allies pushed back against attacks on women’s health, other activists were growing worried about the tone and direction of the public conversation. They recognized that the reproductive-rights movement needed a new and bolder strategy—one that aimed to change cultural attitudes around abortion, not just laws and regulations.

Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, an organization that focuses on young people’s sexual and reproductive health, says that in late 2010 and early 2011, as the Tea Party swept into power, her group heard from frustrated youth leaders who wanted to respond in some way to the incessant political attacks on abortion. They noticed that while many were worried about the future of reproductive health care, very few people were actually talking about abortions as such. The escalation of the right’s anti-choice rhetoric, says Hauser, was making any such discussion more difficult. “Honestly, the fear-based strategies and the vehemence makes it very, very difficult for people,” she says. “I think all of us have internalized some fear and shame [about abortion] that can be so immobilizing.” She and her team understood that this stigma, which limits the societal conversation, ultimately impacts how legislators think about abortion, too. New laws requiring women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds and mandatory waiting periods, so they could “think more carefully” about their decisions, were little more than efforts to shame those who didn’t want to carry to term.

Advocates for Youth began to lay the groundwork for a public storytelling campaign, in which people could share their abortion experiences if they felt it was safe to do so. The effort was named the “1-in-3 Campaign”, because the Guttmacher Institute found that a third of all U.S. women will have had an abortion during the course of their lives. “If you tell one abortion story, people tend to shut it down. They say, ‘Oh well she could have done this, or she should have done that,’” says Hauser, who researched how storytelling has impacted other social movements. “But when you start to hear multiple stories at once, it becomes much harder to dismiss.”

Hauser admits that, initially, some mainstream reproductive-rights groups quietly pushed back on this de-stigmatizing campaign. But by 2013 and 2014, the groups started to embrace the strategy, and even more diverse efforts began to take shape. A new anti-stigma organization, Sea Change, formed in 2014 to conduct social science research on reproductive stigmas, with the goal of ultimately reducing them. Another organization, SHIFT, formed in 2015 to amplify the voice of abortion providers—those who understand the complicated ways in which women relate to abortion as both a medical and a cultural experience. These efforts began to effect a real change in the zeitgeist—new film narratives and TV plots started to emerge, featuring women who ended their pregnancies in relatively nontraumatic ways.

And all of this activism has created the space for more women to come forward with their own stories. In 2014, in an essay entitled, “Ending the Silence That Fuels Abortion Stigma,” Richards described her own abortion experience in Elle magazine. She was already raising three kids at the time—Lily, and twins Hannah and Daniel—and felt an abortion “was the right decision” for her and her husband. She said it “wasn’t a difficult decision.”

“Rarely do you see a leader of an organization putting her own skin in the game like that,” says Steph Herold, the managing director of Sea Change.

I asked Richards why, after leading Planned Parenthood for eight years, she had felt the time was right to share her own story. Though she had never hidden the fact that she had an abortion, she said she never really thought to share it so publicly, in a major women’s magazine, in part because her abortion was never a defining part of her life. And it still isn’t.

But she’s glad she spoke out. “Women now come up and tell me their stories about having an abortion—and boy, if this makes them more comfortable about sharing that story with me, or with anyone else, and helps them lift whatever burden is on them, hallelujah!”  

Richards’s decision to tell her own story is part of a new effort within Planned Parenthood to take on abortion stigma. “I think the biggest change that I’ve seen in Planned Parenthood is that instead of emphasizing that abortion is only a small percentage of their services, they’re saying that they’re proud to provide abortion care,” says Herold. “They’re moving to a point where they say, ‘Yes we provide all kinds of health care, and abortion is just one service in the spectrum of all health-care services we provide.’” Indeed, this past October, Richards published a piece in Cosmopolitan, articulating that message in a way Planned Parenthood has generally avoided in the past. “If we want women to have fulfilling careers and economic stability, we have to give them full access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion,” she wrote. “Of course abortion services are health care.”

Several weeks after the Cosmopolitan piece came out, I asked Richards for her thoughts on the “only 3 percent” talking point, and if she worried it unwittingly contributed to abortion stigma. Planned Parenthood is an unabashed, unashamed provider of safe and legal abortion, she says, and she’s “incredibly proud” of that fact. “It’s just super-important to me that people understand that women have a whole range of health-care services that they need and being able to make decisions about reproduction is pretty fundamental,” she adds.


THE EFFORT TO FIGHT stigma coincides with another development in the reproductive-rights movement: a shift away from rhetoric about “choice” and “rights” to broader themes of justice, access, and security.

After the 2012 election, the Democratic Party started to really grasp what Page Gardner had been trying to communicate for the past decade. Single women, a growing portion of the electorate, proved to be game-changers in Obama’s re-election campaign; he won their vote by a margin of 36 points, despite losing married women to Mitt Romney. In 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected governor of Virginia, in large part because he won single women by 42 points. (He lost married women to the Republican candidate.) Campaign research conducted the following year revealed that women’s health and economic security were issues that strongly motivated both the progressive base and swing voters. Researchers also found that drop-off voters (those less likely to vote in midterms) were more motivated to cast a ballot if they felt they were going to be voting against a candidate who would endanger women’s health.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 29, 2015, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "Planned Parenthood's Taxpayer Funding." 

The New York Times ran a story in 2014 detailing how mainstream reproductive-rights groups were in the midst of reframing their advocacy to connect with more voters. The article—“Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message”—explored how Planned Parenthood had taken the lead in conducting public opinion polling after 2011, in order to find talking points, like “women’s health” and “economic security,” that resonated with more people. In 2013, Planned Parenthood released a video, “Moving Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Labels.”  

Gretchen Borchelt, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, says that policy-makers have long separated economic issues from reproductive rights, which has meant that reproductive-rights groups generally worked apart from other progressive organizations. “But separating these issues doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t speak to the reality of people’s lives,” she says. “There has been growing recognition of this in the last few years, making it a pivotal moment to push forward policy solutions that place reproductive rights alongside the other policies that help women and their families thrive."

Still, the struggle to push the reproductive-rights movement in new directions has not been without challenges. Even as the Democratic Party and mainstream groups like Planned Parenthood have been linking their advocacy more with other progressive issues—either because they recognize its inherent value, its strategic worth, or both—some smaller organizations that have been making these arguments for years have, at times, felt sidelined. After the Times story ran in 2014, Monica Raye Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice group led by and focused on women of color, published an open letter calling out mainstream groups for failing to acknowledge their decades-long work making connections between reproductive choice and women’s health and economic prospects.

“We appreciate that you push us to do this more, and to do it better,” Richards wrote back in response. “And we hear you when you say that we are not doing enough.” A few months later Richards and Simpson met in person, and published a joint statement pledging to build a stronger partnership.

I asked Simpson how things have played out in the year and a half since that meeting. “We’ve really seen mainstream organizations reaching into the women-of-color-led organizations to get our expertise, and actually have us at the table and shape the conversation,” she says. While Simpson acknowledges there’s still a long way to go in terms of truly making the reproductive-rights movement “intersectional” (a social justice concept that means reckoning with different forms of oppression and how they impact, and compound, one another), she does feel Planned Parenthood “is starting to show up more” for them.

One way that Planned Parenthood is “showing up” for a broader range of constituencies is through its membership in the All Above All coalition, a growing political effort to overturn the Hyde Amendment—the 40-year-old law that prohibits federal spending on abortions. Women of color and low-income communities most affected by Hyde have been leading the campaign.

During Cecile Richards’s testimony this past September, she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that in her opinion, the Hyde Amendment “discriminates against low-income women.” Erin Matson, who has been frustrated by some of the rhetorical timidity of the reproductive-rights community, was surprised and encouraged by Richards’s comments. “That’s not how Planned Parenthood talked about Hyde in the past,” she says.


A WEEK BEFORE THANKSGIVING, Planned Parenthood’s political arm launched its 2016 election effort, pledging to spend at least $20 million defending reproductive rights. “We will organize and mobilize to elect lawmakers who are in our corner,” Richards announced in a video ad.

Most public opinion analysts suspect that the conservative strategy of targeting anti-choice voters in Republican primaries may backfire in the general election. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in August found that Planned Parenthood has a significantly higher favorability rating than any other group or individual tested—including the Supreme Court, President Obama, both political parties, and key Republicans running for president. Handfuls of other recent polls and surveys have reported nationwide majorities opposed to defunding the organization.

Even on abortion, despite the high-profile attacks, public opinion hasn’t substantially changed. The percentage of Americans who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, in some circumstances, or under no circumstances has stayed relatively constant since Gallup first started asking the question in 1975. In 2015, Gallup found that 29 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 51 percent believe it should be legal under some circumstances, and 19 percent believe it should be legal under no circumstances. While Republican candidates are staking out positions to appeal to those who oppose abortion under all circumstances, it turns out that not even all those voters are on board with the GOP attacks. A recent YouGov poll found that more than a third of Americans who support strict abortion restrictions nonetheless hold a favorable opinion of Planned Parenthood.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who compared supporting a woman’s right to choose to supporting slavery, has made clear that he’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, along with laws that permit women to terminate pregnancies in cases of rape or incest. Marco Rubio, a candidate favored among GOP elites, also wants abortion to be made illegal with no exceptions for rape or incest. But in a CNN/ORC national poll taken just before the 2012 presidential election, 83 percent of all voters—and 76 percent of Republicans—said they favored allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. “The RNC is not happy about this Republican primary,” says Anna Greenberg, one of the nation’s top Democratic pollsters. “This is not a strategy [for them], it’s a disaster.”

The anti-abortion rhetoric stands not only to motivate the progressive base, but also to agitate independent voters. Independent women in particular tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative, and Greenberg notes that a lot of the misogynistic and anti–reproductive rights rhetoric has actually helped Democrats more effectively communicate with this swath of the electorate.

“While backing Republicans into a corner might gin up some primary votes, [these positions are] wildly, wildly unpopular with the general public,” says Erica Sackin, Planned Parenthood’s director of political communications. “When Romney said the first thing he’d do as president is defund Planned Parenthood, he lost the 2012 election by the largest gender gap in history.”

Planned Parenthood wants to help elected officials understand that being forthright in their support for abortion and reproductive rights is both better policy and smart politics. In effect, the organization, along with other women’s groups, is now engaged in its own anti-stigma work on the electoral level, pushing leaders away from the “safe, legal, and rare” abortion mantra that pro-choice Democrats used, starting with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The Democratic Party officially removed the phrase from its platform in 2012, and advocates are now urging politicians to think of abortion more along the lines of “safe, legal, and where we live.”

Richards believes the country has arrived at a real inflection point. “It’s just abundantly clear,” she says, that the assaults on Planned Parenthood are not about the organization as a health-care provider, but about “folks who resent that women actually have the legal right to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. That’s what they’re mad about, and they’re really mad.”

The stakes are high, but Richards is looking forward to the challenge. “I’m just grateful we’re getting to what is actually the real fight,” she says. “I believe this country is not going to go backwards. It has been incredibly inspiring to see young people, who I do think live their lives in a more public way, who really do want to throw off judgment and shame about so many things, including abortion. To me, that is a bright new day, and I hope, I think, it’s all going to come together in one place.”