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What Democrats Can Learn From Cecile Richards

In the face of a sustained Republican onslaught, the longtime head of Planned Parenthood didn't back down.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Cecile Richards is a monster or a hero, depending on which talking head is on television. The dichotomy springs from her polarizing position as the head of Planned Parenthood, the role she’s occupied for the last twelve years. On Friday, she confirmed reports that she’s stepping down, telling The New York Times, “As a lifetime organizer, I’ve never been more excited, despite this Congress and this presidency.”

Is she leaving public life or simply moving on? Richards insisted to the Times that she doesn’t plan on running for office. But she is former Texas Governor Ann Richards’s daughter, and her ties to Texas Democratic politics are deep. Her decision to resign just before the release of a new memoir in April has also encouraged speculation about her political future—and she wouldn’t be the first aspiring politician to deny a run until it’s time for a campaign announcement.

Richards knows red states, having run her mother’s campaign for governor and founded the Texas Freedom Network, an influential progressive group in hostile territory. And she shepherded Planned Parenthood through some of its most tumultuous years. Good training, in other words, for our political moment. But whether she runs for office or not, what Cecile Richards does next may not be as important as what she’s already accomplished. Her tenure, as a successful fundraiser and as a savvy political organizer, has left indelible marks not just on Planned Parenthood, but also on the Democratic Party.

During her time at Planned Parenthood, Richards became an unfortunate lightning rod, absorbing much of the far-right’s vitriol. Richards was “proud” that her organization killed babies; she gets “excited” when women “talk about killing their babies.” So the stories went. Other stories, which refuse to go away despite evidence to the contrary, include that Planned Parenthood traffics in the illegal sale of human body parts and that the federal government allowed them to get away with it. The conservative organizations that spread these stories are the same ones that stoke fears about “partial-birth abortions,” that claim that women who get abortions experience “post-abortion syndrome,” and that push “abortion reversal” laws that require doctors to falsely tell women they can reverse a medication abortion within a certain time frame.

This is fake news. Richards herself noted the phenomenon in a 2017 interview with Recode, calling her organization one of “the original fake news targets.” That claim outraged the right, but the era of fake news did not begin with Donald Trump. It began decades ago, with Roe v. Wade, and it’s plagued the reproductive rights movement ever since.

Under Richards, Planned Parenthood seemed to understand this intransigence for what it is, and it navigated political life in the defensive position with skill. Planned Parenthood’s powerful political enemies sought its total destruction, and the Democratic Party’s weaknesses in Congress and in state governments left it vulnerable to attack. The old Clintonian motto of “safe, legal, and rare” would have been a pragmatic way to respond. Instead, rather than compromise on a core issue, Planned Parenthood embraced abortion rights. So did Richards, who became famous for her bright pink suits and her willingness to discuss her own decision to have an abortion.

Planned Parenthood’s counter-strategy was to disseminate facts about the abortion procedure, as well as the organization’s role in making it accessible. Though this two-pronged approach didn’t persuade its most committed critics, it also didn’t harm the organization or the cause it represented. Americans consistently oppose defunding the group, and in a recent Fox News poll it ranked just below Bernie Sanders in public favorability. Mainstream Republican opinion—that the group ought to be defunded—remains sharply at odds with public sentiment. Planned Parenthood is generally liked.

That consistent public enthusiasm should be attributed to Planned Parenthood’s status as a health-care provider. It’s never been the abortionplex of right-wing nightmares, and it’s one of the few places making preventative and prenatal care accessible to low-income women. People, it turns out, like having health care. Bold rhetoric isn’t quite so controversial when voters know it represents a substantive public good.

If the Democratic Party can learn from Richards and Planned Parenthood, it also goes the other way, though in the form of a cautionary tale. When it comes to political fundraising, Planned Parenthood is essentially an arm of the Democratic Party, and its fundraising practices therefore complement rather than challenge whatever positions the party holds on a host of issues that range beyond health care and women’s rights. This reflects the plain political reality: Planned Parenthood needs pro-choice politicians; those politicians tend to be Democrats.

But going forward, perhaps the organization should demand more from its allies.

Richards’ pragmatic streak has been an occasional source of irritation to other reproductive rights activists, such as the during the legislative fight over the Affordable Care Act, which resulted in several compromises on abortion. “The whole strategy from pro-choice leaders [during the ACA debates] was ‘Let’s just be reasonable.’ Give me a break! When has that ever stopped the right?” Reproaction’s Erin Matson told The American Prospect in 2015. There’s a certain truth here: Nothing will placate the right on the issue of abortion, a lesson that, years later, Richards learned well. The compromises she signed off on did not prevent the Republican Party from seizing on David Daleiden’s selectively edited “baby body parts” footage in 2015, which fueled stories that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling those parts.

Under Richards, who is friends with the Clintons, the organization delivered its first-ever primary endorsement to Hillary Clinton. “Let’s be clear—reproductive rights and health are on the ballot in 2016,” Richards said at the time. “We’re proud to endorse Hillary Clinton for President of the United States. ... No other candidate in our nation’s history has demonstrated such a strong commitment to women or such a clear record on behalf of women’s health and rights.” Clinton is, of course, a confirmed, vocal ally of Planned Parenthood, and was the pragmatic choice of the Democratic Party establishment. But Clinton was hardly the only pro-choice candidate in the Democratic primary race, and it turned out that her party’s brand of pragmatism was not what voters were looking for.

Planned Parenthood, under Richards, thrived by sticking to its guns. It could urge the Democratic Party to do more of the same.