April 4, 2012

Richards Defends “Basic Human Right” Of Access to Reproductive Health Care

Describing the past year’s “unrelenting attacks” in this country on women seeking reproductive health care, Planned Parenthood of America President Cecile Richards spoke last week to a packed auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson School about “Keeping Politics Out of Women’s Health.” Her appearance, which was cosponsored by Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and the Center for Health and Well Being, was part of the Wilson School’s “Leadership and Governance Program,” which brings prominent policy makers to Princeton for a two to three day visit so that students can meet and learn from them.

Ms. Richards, who has led the 95-year-old organization since 2006, said that a confluence of events and issues have made this a “critical moment” in Planned Parenthood’s history. She cited the public outcry in response to Susan B. Komen For the Cure’s attempt to discontinue funding Planned Parenthood, the debates in Washington regarding contraception and religious organizations, and the current discussion about health care reform.

Social networking using texting, chatting, email, tweets, and Facebook, promises to be a powerful challenge to some politicians’ interest in limiting access to information and services, Mrs. Richards suggested. The current “revolution about how people access information is nowhere more visible than in reproductive health care,” she said.

With four million online website users, half of whom are using their cell phones to connect, Planned Parenthood’s has been a “living digital laboratory in recent years,” noted Ms. Richards. Statistics are only part of it, though. Ms. Richards described the almost palpable relief reflected in a young woman’s text response to a Planned Parenthood staffer’s answer to her question about birth control.

Currently, she reported, 15-to 24-year-olds represent over half of this country’s reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases. “This is pretty frightening,” she said, adding that a disproportionate number of them are young people of color. A smartphone represents “freedom” and is one of the most important tools being used “to keep young people from becoming statistics.”

Although her message was profoundly serious, Ms. Richards, who is the daughter of the late Ann Richards, the feisty first pro-choice Governor of Texas, delivered it with humor, panache, and energy.

“Sex is everywhere,” Ms. Richards observed at one point. Movies and music are rife with it, but “there are people who are still unwilling to talk about sexual health.” She noted that women spend five years of their life having kids, and 30 years trying not to have them. “It’s a major health issue.”

“Women really trust Planned Parenthood,” said Ms. Richards, and so, apparently do men: young men coming for check-ups or for consultations with with their partners are the organization’s fastest growing demographic.

The 1980 Brown University graduate predicted that women and young people “will probably determine who the next president is,” and expressed optimism about the future. The coming generation in America is, she said its “most diverse and she is counting on them to recognize reproductive health care as a “basic human rights issue.”

Prior to coming to Planned Parenthood, Ms. Richards served as deputy chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. In 2004, she founded and served as president of America Votes, a coalition of 42 national grassroots organizations, working to maximize registration, education, and voter participation nationwide. In 2011, she was named to TIME magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“Keeping Politics out of Women’s Health” was taped by CSPAN and is archived online on the Woodrow Wilson School’s Webmedia site, wws.princeton.edu/webmedia.