“I don’t think Mr. Issa has ever taken birth control”

Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, talks about the new politics of contraception

Topics: Contraception, Planned Parenthood, ,

"I don’t think Mr. Issa has ever taken birth control"Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood (Credit: Carl Daniel Cox)

The assault on women’s healthcare in the effort to legally limit women’s reproductive rights is fast becoming the defining element of election 2012. Republican presidential candidates have been racing to see who can support the most regressive idea.  Congressional leaders like Darrell Issa are holding all-male hearings on contraception, and the state of Virginia just passed, then rescinded, a law forcing women seeking abortions to undergo invasive tests.

In the cross hairs: Planned Parenthood, the 91-year-old organization that provides birth control, cancer screening, STD testing and abortions to 3 million women a year, from 750 clinics in 49 states. In  the last month, Planned Parenthood was again in the headlines when the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced it wouldn’t fund Planned Parenthood anymore, then reversed itself.

Salon sat down with Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, to talk about how American politics reached the point where access to not just abortion, but to birth control, suddenly became a priority in the national political debate.

Women’s reproductive health issues seem to be defining issues this election year. Did you see this coming?

No. Somehow the Republican primary has become this race to the bottom on women’s issues. They have been trying to outdo themselves. And they are going to wake up in November and realize that the majority of voters are women.

Why do you think this is happening?

After the 2010 elections we saw this total realignment of  Congress and legislatures, based on reproductive issues.  People had been elected on the basis of anger about this enormous economic dislocation. But what we saw was that the House of Representatives was then two-thirds anti-choice. This was not a topic at all in the election. Yet, as soon as they were sworn in, they didn’t focus on jobs, the economy or foreclosures, but the first legislation they introduced was about abortion and healthcare. One of the first bills the House passed was to completely eliminate Planned Parenthood funding.

As a former Democratic strategist, what do you make of this phenomenon?

I think the other issues really take some thought and energy to solve. And it’s a cheap shot to go after women. We are seeing this enormous overreach that the government should be in every part of women’s lives. And we are seeing people across the country saying, “OK, enough is enough. How do you put politics in front of breast cancer screening?”

Did the Komen funding controversy change the way you do business?

The great news for us is that millions of people now know we are a major provider of preventive care including breast and cervical cancer screenings for 700,000 women a year. We heard from men and women across the country, that they they couldn’t believe groups were putting politics ahead of healthcare. We were very pleased to get support from Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong, for example.

Do you expect to get more Komen funding going forward?

That happens at the local level. We are very pleased to be working with them again. Their money goes to our local doctors and screeners. I am quite encouraged. It opens some doors.

Since the 2010 elections lawmakers have introduced more than 1,000 reproductive health bills. Why? And what is Planned Parenthood doing?

I think there was a feeling that women would never object, that we would just take what was dished out. Unfortunately, women are not represented equally in these legislatures.

But, I think we are seeing a real backlash against these efforts against women’s health. We saw the U.S. Senate reject the House’s efforts to end funding for Planned Parenthood. And we gained more than a million new supporters during those months.

Then you see in Mississippi, the most conservative state in the country by practically any measure, that this Personhood measure, which every major Republican presidential candidate has endorsed, was overwhelmingly rejected. People in this country don’t want government intruding into personal and family decisions.

How many of the 1,000 anti-choice measures are becoming law? 

A lot of them. I was just in my home state of Texas. The Legislature had just ended family planning and basic preventive care for 300,000 women in Texas. And Gov. Perry was out bragging that he closed 11 Planned Parenthood centers. These were  all along the Rio Grande and they only provided preventive care, no abortions at all. Here he is out bragging and women in the state are paying the price.

Do you have Republicans on your board or supporting Planned Parenthood?

We have tons of  Republicans. The great irony is a lot of our Planned Parenthoods were started by Republicans. Mrs. Barry Goldwater in Arizona. Richard Nixon signed the first family planning law into effect: the one that Mr. Romney has pledged to eradicate, the one that serves 5 million American women a year. That was signed into law by Nixon. Among Republicans, there is a history of support for access to healthcare and rejection of the intrusive laws being passed by the more extreme members of the party now. The sad thing is, traditional Republicans are being threatened and bullied by the folks in their own party.

You just handed me a Planned Parenthood candidate questionnaire that Mitt Romney signed in 2002, answering “yes” to the questions of whether he supported Roe v. Wade and access for poor women to abortion. What has happened to him?

It’s very tough to be a moderate Republican and stay in office. Ten years ago Mitt Romney was trying to get the Planned Parenthood endorsement. Today, as a leading candidate for president, he has pledged to completely eliminate Planned Parenthood, to end the family planning program, and he has endorsed the Personhood amendment. He is unrecognizable from when he was governor. That is a very good example of how extreme the Republican primary system has gotten. The thought we would have a major candidate running for president in America that wants to end family planning is just extraordinary.

Romney is the moderate. Santorum leans a bit farther over the edge.  

It is extraordinary that someone wants to be president of the United States who has absolutely no regard for women and women’s ability to make any decisions about personal healthcare. What’s disheartening is every time he moves to the right, Mitt Romney moves with him. What’s really of concern for women is that these guys can’t be trusted.

What did you make of Darrell Issa’s all-male panel on contraceptives and the Affordable Care Act, saying the issue is about liberty, not women.   

Well, I don’t think Mr. Issa has ever taken birth control. Where they are totally missing the boat is that women in America don’t see birth control as a social issue. It’s a health care issue.  The average American woman spends five years getting pregnant and having kids and then she spends an average of 30 years trying not to get pregnant. So trying to prevent an unintended pregnancy is a lifelong pursuit for women. Birth control is a basic healthcare issue and it’s an economic issue. Many women will save $600 a year from this [Affordable Care] benefit alone. I can’t say it enough: 99 percent of women in America, if they have ever been sexually active, use birth control. And 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control. This is  just not a controversial topic!

Did you predict that they would go after this benefit?

We worked for the passage because we knew it would be good for women. But I have been stunned to see that the Republican Party has taken up as the issue they want to be working on in Congress:  ending birth control. I look around me and see all the things this country needs. And the thought that they make that their priority is astounding,. This is why people have so little regard for Congress now. People ask: What are they doing to help me in my daily life? And for women who don’t have time for politics, who are raising their kids, trying to put dinner on the table, working two jobs, that’s money I can use for groceries? And now, men are talking to other men about how they can get rid of this benefit for women.

Are we living in regressive times for women in the U.S. right now?

I do think in the last 12 months it is literally a tale of two cities. On one hand, there are enormous opportunities for women, getting preventive care covered. On the other hand, there are political forces trying to take us back to the 1950s.

 When you arrived in 2006 , you said, “I feel like we need to go into the 21st century. Clearly, we are going to get there kicking and screaming.” Still, 87 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider.  That’s not progress, is it?

We’ve made a lot of progress. We are really seeing change in the coming generation. I hear from a lot of people saying, oh we fought so hard in the 1960s and young people don’t appreciate how far we have come. But I think in the last year we have seen young people engage in a way they never have before. When the House voted to end our funding,  we saw young people, including young men, all across the country on college campuses, get involved. We signed up more than a million new activists and supporters. During the Komen thing, we had literally 1.3 million tweets — an explosion!  These are young people.  And we are seeing young men take these issues on, they are not just women’s issues. They can’t imagine going back to a time when birth control was an issue.

But PP will always be a target for the pro-lifers.

Yes. They want to end all access to safe and legal abortion. Planned Parenthood does more to prevent unintended pregnancy than any organization. It’s unconscionable that the U.S. has the highest rate of unintended and teen pregnancy in the industrial world. There is so much we can do in this country to prevent that. I have been so disturbed to read the things that Mr Romney is saying, because I feel surely he must know better, this is a country where there is a lot we can do to improve people’s lives, instead of making women’s healthcare a political issue.

Do you foresee a time when women won’t be fighting to protect basic reproductive rights?

I think there is always going to be a part of society that is trying to keep women back, but I think we are making progress. Ninety-five years ago Margaret Sanger was arrested for handing out not birth control, but information about birth control. Last year we saw 30 million people online looking for information about birth control. We are making progress.

Nina Burleigh (www.ninaburleigh.com) is author of “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.”

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