Driving Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare, providing birth control, pap smears, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and pregnancy tests to 5 million people each year. It has an annual budget of $800 million, 860 clinics, at least one representative in each state and enough members and staff that its reach into the grassroots is unmatched by any other entity fighting for reproductive freedom and women's equality.
And yet, there is a gap between Planned Parenthood's reach and its grip: its ability to make politicians bend to its will or even inspire the communities it serves. This was obvious when Senator John Kerry recently announced that he believes that both sides--prolife and prochoice--obfuscate and exaggerate for political gain. It is obvious when state legislators all over the map work openly with prolife groups, defying the opinions of medical experts (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn't support any of the myriad restrictions on abortion). And it is obvious in South Dakota. The state has two Planned Parenthood clinics--but they have to fly their doctors (and, until recently, their nurses) in from Minneapolis, nearly 200 miles away, because the local community doesn't necessarily embrace the organization. In February South Dakota's legislature passed a law banning all abortions unless the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. There is no health exception and no exception for pregnancy due to rape or incest. On March 6 Governor Mike Rounds signed the ban, sparking a campaign to overturn it with an initiative on the ballot this November, as well as a flurry of fundraising, organizing and e-mails from groups like the ACLU, NARAL Pro-Choice America and, of course, Planned Parenthood.
Just a month earlier, Cecile Richards, a 48-year-old married mother of three teenagers, started her new post as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). The selection of Richards was somewhat unusual in that she isn't a healthcare provider, nor did she work for a Planned Parenthood affiliate (as PPFA heads have almost always done). Instead, her pedigree is purely political. What this signals is that many of the decision-makers at the gigantic organization, from members of the board to the heads of influential affiliates, believe that the disconnection between reach and grip means that Planned Parenthood needs to lead a political movement--both at the grassroots (i.e., the people they serve) and in the smaller, crucial world of Beltway politics.
The daughter of the late Democratic icon Ann Richards, Cecile was raised amid high-level campaigns. She organized janitors as one of her first jobs out of Brown, was deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi (and was vital to Pelosi's ascension as the first woman Democratic leader of the House of Representatives) and worked for the Turner Foundation when Jane Fonda (Ted Turner's spouse at the time) decided to tackle Georgia's teen pregnancy epidemic. Ellen Malcolm, founder of EMILY's List, the nation's largest political action committee, is a good friend. Richards founded America Votes, an attempt to bring thirty progressive organizations, like the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, together to complement one another's political efforts. "I bring a lot of relationships to this job," Richards told me in August. "Anthony Romero from the ACLU, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club...these are people I've worked alongside for years."
But she is no mere player, DC or otherwise. People really love Cecile Richards, from former boss Jane Fonda to regular gals who have seen Richards speak, like "Vanessa," a young woman posting on the influential blog Feministing (the header: "Cecile Richards rocks my world!"). For today's increasingly antichoice, burned-out climate, Richards is just what Planned Parenthood's legendary founder, Margaret Sanger, might have ordered: quietly confident, friendly and genuine. She doesn't speak in the prochoice clichés ("complex decision," "we are pro-family") that turn many people off or the organization-speak ("build our infrastructure") that means something to fellow bureaucrats but to no one else.
Even the diverse and notoriously ornery heads of the 118 local Planned Parenthood affiliates, which value their independence from the national organization, come together in praise of their new leader. "When she came in, the world went from gray and dismal to sunny and bright," says Sarah Stoesz, a veteran organizer and the CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota. "Cecile has 'it' the way some people just have it," Jatrice Martel Gaiter, the highly respected head of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington, told me. "'It' being charm, class, beauty, brains and being tough as nails. Faye had it, too," Gaiter continued, referring to another charismatic glamazon, Faye Wattleton, who helmed PPFA from 1978 to 1992, and came out of an Ohio affiliate. "In [metropolitan Washington], we have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and HIV," says Gaiter, whom Richards visited while on a listening tour to dozens of affiliates to learn more about the communities she would be working with and for. "When she came to our teen event in Anacostia--which is like Harlem or Watts--she legitimately connected with the kids. It was not a drive-by, middle-class, do-good wave. I was so proud to have a colleague who wasn't afraid to come into the African-American community and who is comfortable with poor people."
A Texan, Richards is even from a red state, which gives her credibility (no latte-sucking Connecticut WASP, she) and demonstrates that she knows how to build a movement in a less than friendly environment--which, sadly, describes the United States in 2006. The forces eroding reproductive rights, from abortion to contraception, are many: an increasingly organized and growing prolife movement, millions of federal dollars dedicated to abstinence-only education and younger women and men raised with Roe v. Wade who increasingly don't identify with prochoice--as a term or a movement.