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April 15, 2011

Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards Speaks Out

What's it like running an organization in the crosshairs of politicians, rabid opposition, and even the Supreme Court? For Cecile Richards, 53, the stately president of Planned Parenthood, it's business as usual.

cecile richards

Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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In late February, the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood — the most aggressive assault on your organization since you assumed the top job in 2006. Were you surprised?
I think what I didn't realize until then was how fiercely under attack all of women's health care would be, way beyond Planned Parenthood. I have been stunned by how much this new Congress is so focused on rolling back access to women's health care at a time when women are more in need than any other moment in my lifetime.

It's no secret that Planned Parenthood's abortion providers face death threats. Do you ever feel in danger?
I've never lived in any way afraid of what comes next. You just have to do what you think is right. We spend a lot of time making sure that our 11,000 employees around the country are safe. That does weigh on me. Particularly at times like this, when the political tension seems to be at a boiling point.

You must get loads of hate mail.
Let's just say there are a lot of people praying for me.

What's it like running an institution that has to routinely fend off attacks that threaten its survival?
I try to keep it in perspective. When Margaret Sanger first opened her birth-control information center 95 years ago, she was hauled off to jail. Women have had to fight every step of the way for reproductive care.

How do you get things done when you're constantly dealing with crises?
Yes, we're dealing with this battle in Congress. But we're also making so much progress where it really matters. We see 3 million patients a year, and in the last 30 days, we will have seen 2.2 million visitors to plannedparenthood.org; 10 percent come from other countries, where they have no information about birth control. We are testing a program where young people can text their questions to Planned Parenthood. And, as a result of health-care reform, there is going to be an explosion of health-care access for women. Planned Parenthood will happily be at the forefront.

You were the deputy chief of staff to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. So you've spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill. Do you think the mostly male Congress treats women differently?
I was in a couple of meetings with senators yesterday, and they were lecturing me on what we should be doing. And I thought, God, if I were a male CEO, head of a large national health-care organization, I don't think they'd be lecturing me. Sometimes you just have to nod, say thank you, and move on.

Your mother was Ann Richards, the legendary Democratic governor of Texas. Did she give you any good job advice?
She believed that women are always waiting for someone to give us permission. We think we don't have the right clothes, don't know the right people, don't have the right degrees. She told me to never turn down a new opportunity because I might think I'm not qualified — the only regrets you have are for those things you didn't do.

What comes next for you — political office?
Could be. I don't know. I haven't ever planned ahead.

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