Why She Fights
When Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn 101 years ago, women lined the block for pamphlets on how to prevent pregnancy. At the time, the second most common cause of death for women of childbearing age was pregnancy complications, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told a Tufts audience on March 28.
An undercover police officer shut down the clinic ten days later for distributing illegal information, and Sanger landed in jail, where she educated fellow inmates about birth control. She went on to travel the country spreading the word, and so began Planned Parenthood.
“This movement was started by people who were willing to challenge conventions and authority and risk their reputation to defy unjust laws and fight for every woman’s, and today every person’s, right to control their own body and determine their own future,” said Richards, who delivered Tufts Hillel’s Merrin Moral Voices Lecture, which was hosted in collaboration with the Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series.
That battle has continued to this day, said Richards, who has seen many victories and losses during her decades on the front lines, and who, although she is stepping down as president of Planned Parenthood, said she plans to keep on fighting.
She urged students to do the same. “In progressive politics, you lose and you lose and you lose, and then you win. And when you do, it’s amazing and worth the fight,” Richards said. “It’s important to remember that even when fights seem unwinnable, they must be waged.”
One such fight in the Senate centered on whether to cover maternity benefits in the Affordable Care Act. Richards recounted that Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona opposed the measure, saying, “I’ve never needed them.” He was rejoined, Richards said, by Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, saying that his mother probably did. Ultimately, maternity benefits were covered under the Affordable Care Act. “This is why it matters having women in the Senate,” Richards said.
Birth control measures were likewise opposed by Republicans in Congress, she said, but months later, Richards got a call from President Barack Obama telling her that the White House was announcing mandatory birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In the end, Richards said, the benefit saved women $1.4 billion in its first year alone, and helped bring down unintended pregnancy rates in America to today’s thirty-year low and teen pregnancy rates to today’s all-time low. It is a benefit used now by more than 62 million American women.
“That is worth celebrating,” Richards said. “And if we hadn’t organized and refused to give up, we never would have won.”
Another reproductive rights battle in Richards’ home state of Texas swung just as rapidly from victory to defeat and victory again. Five years ago, after successfully shutting down dozens of Planned Parenthood health centers, the Texas legislature introduced bills to ban abortion in the state.
Large numbers of Texans drove hours to Austin to testify against the bills; Texas Senator Wendy Davis filibustered the measures for thirteen hours, and carried the day. But then-Governor Rick Perry later called a special senate session, which passed the bills. The case landed before the Supreme Court, and Texas’s anti-abortion laws were declared unconstitutional. “It was the most important reproductive victory in years,” Richards said.
And it was a victory beyond reproductive rights, said Richards, who still runs into the young women she met protesting in Austin. “They went on to become organizers. Now they’re in it for the long haul, as organizers for the resistance,” Richards said.
After Richards’ lecture, a student asked her if Planned Parenthood will rebrand to emphasize its less controversial services; Richards gave an emphatic no. “We don’t want to change our name or all the important health care we provide. We want to double down on it, and make sure it’s available to every single person in the country,” Richards said.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights are stronger than ever, numbering 11.5 million, Richards said. “That’s twice the membership of the National Rifle Association. Not that it’s a competition,” Richards said with a smile. “But it’s important to me because if every one of our supporters voted, we would absolutely change the direction of the country for the good, and that’s what we’ve got to get serious about doing.”
Is she considering a run for political office, another student asked. Richards waited with a smile as the crowd applauded, then shot back, “Maybe you should run for office.”
It’s a privilege to be able to choose what you to with your life, Richards said, and students should take advantage of it by dreaming big. “Whether your passion is reproductive rights or any other issue that affects people’s lives and your country, this is your moment,” she said. “Envision the world you really want to live in, and then go build it.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.