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In Final Turn With Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards Tells Obstetricians Women's Healthcare "Has a Long Way to Go"

Mary Caffrey
Even though her final stretch at the helm of Planned Parenthood was not easy, Cecile Richards told the nation's obstetricians she is optimistic because of the activism she sees among women and girls at the grassroots level. "Women are on fire," she said.
For her final speech Sunday as president of Parent Parenthood, Cecile Richards returned to where it all began: she came to Austin, Texas, the state capital where her mother served as governor, and where the legislature represents the new battlefield over access to abortion, birth control, and cancer screenings.

And yet, Richards was full of hope as she addressed the 2018 annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Her travels have put her in touch with women and girls awakened by the current political climate. She bears witness as patients become supporters, and then activists, and in some cases, candidates.

“Women are on fire,” Richards said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re fighting for the heart and soul of this country.”

She said capturing that fire—and translating it into votes—will be part of her next chapter after today, when she ends her 12-year run with Planned Parenthood. Richards is also promoting her memoir, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, And Finding the Courage to Lead, which tells her story growing up as the daughter of straight-talking Ann Richards in conservative Texas through her years as one of the country’s best-known healthcare activists.

The final stretch with Planned Parenthood has been eventful, as the Trump Administration tried to roll back the Affordable Care Act and federal funding for her organization. On Sunday, Richards thanked ACOG members and its leaders for sending doctors to Capitol Hill to warn lawmakers how this would harm women’s healthcare. But with the immediate threat over, both Richards and ACOG leaders warn that lower-profile steps, such as waivers that let states impose work rules for Medicaid, will have devastating effects on new mothers. Some are forced back to work after just 2 to 3 weeks to keep their health coverage.

Efforts by states to defund Planned Parenthood are the current threat, even though the organization serves 2.4 million women a year and polling shows most Americans support public funding. Richards said 1 in 5 women has been served by the organization, “including me, and maybe some of you.”

While the group receives no funding for abortion, it does receive Medicaid reimbursements for other services. Planned Parenthood offers services for men, too; a clinic Richards just opened in Charleston, South Carolina, will soon offer vasectomies. While other parts of the healthcare system struggle with “patient-centered” care, Planned Parenthood already lets clients make online appointments, offers 24/7 outreach, communicates by text, and even delivered a woman’s birth control where she was living on an Alaskan glacier.

New Tools, Birth Control Needed
Planned Parenthood was founded in New York City when death during childbirth was a leading cause of mortality among women. The pioneers, led by Margaret Sanger, started by handing out pamphlets and were promptly arrested. So, they handed out information in the jail.

“We’ve kind of been controversial since the moment we began,” Richards said.

Access to birth control, education, and vastly improved prenatal care has not only improved women’s health, but transformed career and economic opportunities—Richards pointed out the rising numbers of women in banking, law, medicine, and even at NASA. Plus, there are now 22 women in the US Senate, including Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, the first woman to bring her newborn onto the Senate floor.

But there’s more to do to achieve “true healthcare equity,” Richards said. Echoing themes heard during the ACOG meeting, she said broader use of telehealth could allow women in underserved areas to receive medical abortion, eliminating the need for women to travel long distances for care.

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