Announcing her retirement, Richards has us all wondering if she's running for office. But we really need to be talking about her successor (can it not be a white lady?).
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It’s hard to imagine a more thankless job than being the President of Planned Parenthood. Within just the last few years the nation’s largest women’s healthcare organization has been defunded by multiple states, was the target of a series of misleadingly edited undercover videos, was subjected to repeated Congressional investigations, and had an actual terrorist invade and gun down patients at one health center in Colorado. All of this came on top of daily harassment at individual clinics across the nation, in emails, in social media, and from right-wing news sources—and this was even before Donald Trump was elected President and energized abortion and birth control opponents even more than ever before.
If the first year of the Trump administration feels as if it has already been four years long to you, imagine how it must have felt to Cecile Richards. As President of Planned Parenthood for the past 12 years, she has morphed into the GOP boogeyman for all that is wrong with the left—our love of reproductive freedom; our desire to have sex without necessarily birthing a baby just because we happen to enjoy a good orgasm; our belief that maybe those who have the ability to get pregnant shouldn’t have to put their educations, careers, or financial, mental or physical health on hold because we are biologically capable of producing offspring and the right thinks that should be our main priority; and our embrace of the idea that all people should be able to experience physical and emotional love regardless of the race or gender of our partner, even if that happens to be in a same-sex or even unmarried relationships.
If Hillary Clinton is the woman most reviled by the right, Richards is an easy second place finisher, with perhaps Michelle Obama giving her a run for her money. I’ve seen memes of Richards as everything from Cruella DeVille to Joseph Mengele, and read conservative columnists call her evil or a mass-murderer on a daily basis. These attacks only seem to have increased since the 2016 election. If every day in the Trump administration is already a struggle as a woman in general, and the leader of a woman’s health organization in particular, how much harder must it be with that sort of harassment flooding into your life?
Richards has been the face and force behind Planned Parenthood since 2006, when she became the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation, and its political action arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Under her leadership, Planned Parenthood became more than just a reproductive healthcare organization, it became a powerful election force to be reckoned with during the, as well. Richards led the fight against HB2, the Texas bill that eventually wound its way to the Supreme Court in the biggest abortion rights case since Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And Planned Parenthood’s influence was on display most recently in the Virginia 2017 elections, where Ralph Northam and a pool of other Democrats were swept into office, all of them solidly pro-choice and supportive of expanding access to reproductive healthcare.
When the news broke that Richards will be stepping down from her role, I was surprised, but only briefly. After the “stings,” the attacks politically and physically on Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health centers, the endless political wrangling and the grueling 2016 election, anyone would be tempted to move on.
And wherever she does end up, and whatever she does do next, it will likely be a win for the left. If she dips her toe into running for office, as many suspect, well, she’s already proven that she can take the mudslinging and other hits that a knock-down, drag-out election campaign entails. As the daughter of former Texas Governor and Democrat Ann Richards, politics is no doubt in her blood, and the ability to represent liberal policies in a red state is probably there as well. If she chooses to become more politically involved from a strategy standpoint that benefits the left, too. After all, with clinics in nearly every state in the country and battling legislation all over the nation, Richards has a skillset that should enable her to navigate on-the-ground networks to build up grassroots support for progressive candidates wherever they reside.
Meanwhile, in all honestly, Richards stepping down from Planned Parenthood leadership offers the organization a true opportunity it can benefit from, too. It has been 25 years since Planned Parenthood had a woman of color as its president (Faye Wattleton served as president from 1978 to 1992), and it is time for that to happen again. Black and Latino patients now represent nearly 40 percent of all Planned Parenthood patients, and should Congress successfully kill off the birth-control mandate and the insurance requirement—essentially knee-capping Obamacare altogether and causing it to crumble—then that number will likely increase. To best meet the needs of that community, Planned Parenthood musts shift to make sure they are better represented in the organization.
The loss of Richards will create a seismic shift for both the medical and political sides of Planned Parenthood, and it is a chance that shouldn’t be wasted. Whomever takes over won’t just be battling Congress, fighting state legislatures, keeping clinics open and safe, and getting birth control, abortion and other sexual health care to the most vulnerable clients at a time that the right believes pregnancy and STIs are simply the inevitable results of having sex and could be avoided if people had a little self-control. They will have what could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the reproductive care landscape—to further weave itself into an already existing tapestry of reproductive justice champions that understand that everyone is stronger when they work together, and that it is not just preferable but essential that those who will be most impacted by the devastation of personal liberties caused by the religious right are the ones who should have the power and the resources to lead the way.
While Cecile Richards’s exit from Planned Parenthood may leave some feeling uncertain about what’s next for the organization, I have to admit that I am very excited for us. I am excited to see what Richards can do with her wealth, influence and political connections when she is unbound from being the face of a national healthcare organization. I’m even more excited to see what Planned Parenthood will become next with new leadership to forge a different path. I’m excited to see what they can do with someone who is likely younger, hopefully non-white, and (fingers crossed) open to coordinating with and supporting a full reproductive justice movement.
After all, we are still facing the Trump administration, and we are going to need all of the justice we can muster.
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