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Taking the Reins

by Published on

Fifteen or so years ago, I sat across a dinner table from a Dallas state district court judge who delighted in the sound of his own reedy tenor. When abortion came up, he told me and my fellow dinner-table hostages he had “never met a woman yet who didn’t regret having an abortion.” I didn’t trust myself with my fork, so I put it down. “Well, you’ve met one now,” I told him.

I thought about this man and his puzzled but-I-only-want-to-protect-women face when I went to see Cecile Richards in New York. Richards, 52, has been president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund since 2006. The eldest child of the late Texas governor, Ann Richards, Richards is tall, striking, and articulate. She and her mother share a signature quality: This is a woman you want on your side in a spat, a boring dinner party, a card game, or a brawl.

“I feel like I hear my mom’s voice warning me that things are never going to change quickly or easily,” she says. “There’s a number of men in this country, just a sliver of the population, who really don’t believe women should be able to control their lives and their bodies.”

Richards’ office is in an anonymous building on the West Side of Manhattan. You have to be checked out by a husky man who opens the door, then by another substantial-looking guy with dark, reflective glasses who wants to see your ID. New York might have grown safer over the years, but leading a group that advocates for women’s health care, sex education, birth control, and the choice to terminate a pregnancy—now there’s where the streets have grown mean, unpredictable, and violent.

After a career that included founding the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization supporting religious freedom and individual liberties, and serving as deputy chief of staff for U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Richards sees her mission as bringing her venerable 90-year-old organization into the 21st century.

“It’s a different era, and we’re adjusting to it,” Richards says. “This is not going to be your mama’s Planned Parenthood. All movements have to redefine themselves after they get to a certain age. You see the civil rights movement doing the same thing.”

Under Richards’ leadership, you can see a 21st-century Planned Parenthood emerging with the recent successful battle for Food and Drug Administration approval of over-the-counter emergency contraception. Similarly, a local office that serves Iowa and Nebraska, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, is prescribing RU-486 to terminate early pregnancies for distant patients via videoconferences.

Richards is also intent on extending her organization’s reach and population through the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter.

“We have a growing number of hits on our website,” she says. “Last year, we had 18 million hits—and 6 million of them were teenagers. Planned Parenthood is a good, known brand, with a reputation for offering unbiased information. So our using the Internet is a spectacular combination. Eighty percent of our traffic on our Spanish-language website, in fact, is from outside the U.S.”

As the mother of three grown children, Richards is savvy to generational shifts in traditional ideas of privacy and confidentiality. “We’re talking about a generation that posts everything online,” she says. “Some kids will text you about everything. We have to understand how the world has changed and adjust to it. We have an opportunity to hand over the reins to a new generation—and we want to hear their ideas.”

Thirty-seven years after one Texas woman successfully argued Roe v. Wade in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s exhilarating to see another Texas woman lead Planned Parenthood into renewed prominence. Even if Cecile Richards might live in New York with husband Kirk Adams, and even if she might run in Central Park and enjoy the wide-ranging cultural life around her, she’s still a Texan and says she’s still coming home, eventually. Even her husband, a Massachusetts native, understands that. “My mother had a long talk with him about that,” Richards says.

After all, there are still men in this state who could use a little educating about women.