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.
Cecile Richards wants to beat back all of those forces. During a June address to the progressive group Take Back America, Richards said: “We have the potential to swing the vote in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and that’s a lot of power. The question is, What are we going to do with it? And the answer is, We’re going to use it. We’re going to marry our current reality as the largest reproductive healthcare provider in this country with our opportunity to be the largest kickass advocacy organization in the country…. We’re taking on the opponents of choice in the states and the districts where they live. Planned Parenthood is going to become more political so that healthcare can become less politicized.” (Cue thunderous applause.)
This election season Richards is targeting gubernatorial races in Wisconsin and Ohio, where having an ally in that office will mean not having to worry about abortion bans or restrictions being signed into law. To reach young activists, about whom she is glowingly impressed and excited, she is focusing on growing the organization’s student groups, called VOX chapters. “In 1999 we had two campus chapters and now we have 180, including on historically black campuses,” she says, noting that on her tour “the most incredible thing has been the students I’ve met in places like Kalamazoo, South-Central [Los Angeles], Sarasota.” About the high school students trained by Planned Parenthood as peer educators, she says, “Any question you would ever want to ask, they can answer it without blushing, without apologies or stammering; they have taken on their school boards, their principals and sometimes their own parents. To me, they are the next movement and an unbelievable resource.” To reflect the importance of that constituency, Richards is overseeing a revamping of the PPFA website so that people–especially teenagers–can find “confidential, reliable, safe information.” She described the platform as being like Fandango, the movie website in which you type your ZIP code and the film you want to see. In this case you would type your ZIP code and the site would help you find the closest place for STI testing, birth control and GYN care.
PPFA’s board chair, Esperanza Garcia Walters, told me that with Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood would grow exponentially as a presence on the political stage. “It’s what is necessary for us to protect women’s rights, to make the lives of women and families better,” Garcia Walters, a nurse and consultant in Hollister, California, told me. “It was a gradual shift–a bit like an inch forward at a time. But we’re not taking baby steps anymore. We understand this as our work.”
Margaret Sanger might say, “What took you so long?” Sanger, who opened the first birth-control clinic in 1916 and saw it closed down ten days later, used any means necessary to give women a chance to control their bodies and their lives. She cultivated relationships with wealthy donors, married money, lobbied politically, published and broke the law in her quest. Despite Planned Parenthood’s radical origins, the organization focused on providing services, keeping politics out of the clinic and out of the leadership, until about a decade ago. “Our excellent health provision gave us the credibility to be an advocate,” says Gloria Feldt, an author and activist who led the organization from 1996 to 2005 (and is a veteran of the Arizona affiliate). Feldt says that presidents before her had attempted to establish an action fund (a 501(c)(4) organization that can endorse candidates) but until her tenure “had never been able to move the organization to use these strategies to play hardball.” In 1998 the Planned Parenthood Action Fund formed its PAC. “When I became national president, the action fund was in the deficit position,” she says. “From there we went to $10 million or $12 million in 2000, which we used for ads and on-the-ground, door-knocking work.” During the 2004 presidential election it had only $8 million, but PPFA took a critical turn: It endorsed a candidate for the first time in its eighty-nine-year history. “Given the difference between the two candidates, and a Supreme Court that was one vote away from being able to overturn Roe,” recalls Feldt, “I thought, If we don’t make an endorsement, who are we?” Feldt addressed the 2004 Democratic convention on its first night and toured the country with big names like Gloria Steinem, Moby and Ann Richards campaigning for Senator Kerry and prochoice Democrats in key races.
Come January 2005, George W. Bush was still in office, although Gloria Feldt was not. Is Cecile Richards going to do more political advocacy while Planned Parenthood is under her rule? Gloria Steinem thinks yes: “To me, the very choice meant the board intended to do just that. Planned Parenthood is more trusted and has more credibility than either political party or any political candidate. It also has grassroots. The problem last time was that the big umbrella groups got almost all the money, then turned to local Planned Parenthood Action Funds to do much of the work on the ground. I hope donors realize this time that the Planned Parenthood Action Fund should be, at the very least, the NRA of the centrist-to-progressive 70 percent of the country.” Becoming like the National Rifle Association is not a bad goal.
, which has ranked the twenty-five most powerful lobbies, called it the most effective lobby in Washington. In the 2000 elections the NRA spent twice what Planned Parenthood did.
Charlton Heston, former president of the NRA, once commanded his squabbling chapters to “get together” to fight gun control “or get out of the way.” Planned Parenthood’s affiliates proudly do not speak as one voice, despite the fact that the public sees Planned Parenthood as a single unit. For instance, when former president Gloria Feldt caught heat by sanctioning the selling of an “I had an abortion” T-shirt (which I produced and many Nation readers helped to fund), the heads of several affiliates supported her while others openly pilloried her. “Our diversity is why we needed a leader who understood all aspects of movement building,” says Sarah Stoesz of the Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota affiliate. “We are a federation of separate and distinct entities trying to knit ourselves into a movement. Before Cecile, we didn’t have a chance. Now we do.”
Stoesz has a background in healthcare, but she’s clear that she’s at her job to build a movement, a priority that is reflected in Planned Parenthood’s 2005 move into its fiftieth state–North Dakota. The ND chapter isn’t a clinic but an office manned by one organizer, 31-year-old Amy Jacobson. She attends any public event with a connection to the issues PPFA supports, speaks on campuses and organizes rallies. This is deliberate. When the affiliate opened the two South Dakota clinics in the 1990s and began to provide abortions in 1994, Stoesz says it was a case of “leading with our clinics rather than leading politically,” meaning that Planned Parenthood was setting up shop in hostile territory–South Dakota is the only state to implement a more extreme version of the antiabortion Hyde Amendment, for instance–before assessing if and where there was support. “We have been playing catch-up in South Dakota ever since,” she says.
Planned Parenthood has the reach, and Richards has the political grip, but there is a third element at play, which might be called “touch.” How well Planned Parenthood clinics deliver their care has an effect on the community and its politics–and may be the one place that Richards is at a disadvantage. When advocates speak of a prochoice majority, they often include the millions of people who use Planned Parenthood’s services, but these clients aren’t necessarily activists or even prochoice. This is chalked up to either the women being ignorant and hypocritical or the right wing having gotten its hooks into them. Rarely does Planned Parenthood turn the question back on itself and ask what it could do to make a patient into an activist or at least a supporter.
The eight women I interviewed in South Dakota described abortion experiences that were far from something that would engage them politically on its behalf. Among the stories was a student who was shocked when her state-mandated counseling twenty-four hours before the procedure was a recording played over the phone (not lots of opportunities to ask questions there). The counseling is part of a twenty-four-hour waiting period–a restriction–but if the clinic has to do it, they should do it well. Another woman was very sad about her abortion, although she felt it was the right thing for her and her fiancé to do, and was at loose ends trying to find a counselor she could talk to afterward. Given their sometimes alienating language (such as “tissue” to refer to the fetus), and the fact that partners aren’t allowed in the procedure room, many clinics don’t meet women’s needs, and it is into this breach that antiabortion activists have eagerly stepped. In fact, if you did need to talk after your abortion in South Dakota, the Alpha Center (right down the street) provides that resource. Unfortunately, the Alpha Center is run by Leslee Unruh, one of the architects of the abortion ban. Clinics have limited money and have to make hard choices, but making sure that clients know about Exhale–a nationwide after-abortion talk line–is inexpensive and increasingly necessary. The ban in South Dakota is based on a task force report that, while loaded with prolife activism, is nonetheless basing its case on abortion being bad for women first, and on fetal rights second. The report states, “Abortion hurts women physically, emotionally, and psychologically.” In response, prochoicers must clearly demonstrate, with words and deeds, that they are the real advocates for women. “It’s been really hard for the prochoice movement as a whole to deal with feelings about abortion, because back in the early days women didn’t have forces making them feel guilty,” Byllye Avery, the founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, told me. “But it’s been thirty years of people beating on us, and women now do feel guilty. If women need more [emotional resources], then the movement has to provide them.”
The ballot initiative (and the coalition known as the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families) grew out of a legitimate citizen response to the abortion ban from activists and nonactivists alike. Taking the issue to the voters is a risky strategy, and not one that Planned Parenthood necessarily preferred. The established prochoice groups have always made a strong case that Roe is inalienable, that it isn’t a right that can be figured out state by state, and thus Roe is correct in striking down all state laws banning abortion. Suing to uphold Roe–while expensive and not good for movement-building–has proved successful in overturning these laws in the past. Taking it to the people in South Dakota could fail, and it might be perceived as strengthening the notion that states themselves should have the right to decide whether to allow abortion.
In her constant travels since taking the job, though, Richards hasn’t visited South Dakota. “The people who are going to go to vote in November are people who live and work every day in South Dakota,” she told me when I asked why. “I really believe that and respect that and support that campaign, but this is not a national campaign.” When I visited the Sioux Falls clinic, however, I got the impression that the staff there would have liked some direct contact and support from their new president, to go along with the fundraising pleas using South Dakota as a hook and the news reports that Richards’s life was “South Dakota, all the time.” When I suggested that a visit might provide insight to Richards about the state’s particular issues and provide a shot in the arm to the prochoicers on the ground there, Sarah Stoesz, the Minneapolis-based affiliate leader, snapped, “Cecile’s job is not to shore up the six people who work at the clinic.”
At last look, the prochoice grassroots of South Dakota, while newly energized, may not be as large or willing to vote as the prolife grassroots. Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL now fundraising in DC on behalf of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, thinks the ballot initiative is “the most unwatched political contest in 2006.” “Everyone thinks the big organizations are taking it on,” she told me. “They are helping, but they can’t do the whole thing. We need ads, organizing and money.” A September 20 Zogby poll of 531 likely South Dakota voters found that it’s a toss-up: 47 percent of state residents oppose the abortion ban while 44 percent support it, an increase of five percentage points for the antiabortion position since July. Women are more likely than men to agree with the ban, and younger people–the ones Richards has been so impressed by in her travels–are the most likely to support it.