Cecile Richards on health care, anti-choice Dems, and what’s next

Champions of Sexual Literacy Honorees: Richard Garcia, Cecile Richards and Rose Afriyie
Last week, I got the chance to be honored at the National Sexuality Resource Center’s (NSRC) Champions of Sexual Literacy Dinner following in the footsteps of my amazing mentor Samhita. This year, the main honoree was powerhouse sexuality-rights advocate Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PP). From afar, she had this elegance to her that was really alluring. When I first arrived, she was knee deep in a conversation with an ambassador. It seemed that the entire room occasionally glanced at her, the woman at the helm of perhaps the only woman’s rights organization left that is a household name no matter one’s race, class, or gender.
In her acceptance speech, she recognized the efforts of young women and young educators. She described the award as “a reflection of the thousands of teen sex educators across the country.” She identified them as crucial to political gains and referenced the 3,000 young people that advocated through PP in their community for sex education this September. Her closing was the most interesting to me. She spoke about an African American male who was a prominent sexual health educator in Anacostia in Washington, DC. She recognized his courage as he educated in a community with high incidence rates of HIV and chlamydia amidst financial hardships during the Bush years. She ended by mourning the possibility of what this man could have done with just a drop of abstinence-only money. While drawing attention to young people’s political action is something that I am gladly starting to see more of in woman’s rights circles, it is all too rare. Somehow, this woman’s rights organization that centers it’s mission on delivering medical services, administering education, and advocating for public policy still finds a way to prioritize women while highlighting the efforts of men of color in reproductive equality.This is progress in a world where many feminist organizations struggle to include young people, men, and people of color in a way that is meaningful.
Later, I had the chance to sit down with Cecile to talk about the health care debate and women’s reproductive health care generally. For ten minutes we gabbed about the role of Planned Parenthood in the health care debate, the current status of abortion in negotiations, staying encouraged despite gender discrimination and what’s next on the agenda after health care reform. It was as revealing as it was encouraging. So here’s the recap:

First and foremost, it should be noted that PP is uniquely situated in this whole health care hoopla. As a policy matter and a business, they are all about women’s reproductive health care, seeing 3 million patients every year and managing 860 health centers nationwide. So how does that work for advocacy? Who are their priority constituents? Well, as advocates, PP makes women their priority. “There are 10 million women in America who need access to affordable family planning and currently do not receive it.” Cecile adamantly stated, “Women cannot be worse off with health care reform and their reproductive health has to be covered.” As providers, however, PP is an advocate for community health clinics and public hospitals, ensuring that they are represented in the health care exchange in the network that is getting set up. “It’s really important that folks should be able to go to providers of their choice after health care reform is passed,” Cecile said.
On to abortion. She maintained, “abortion care should be treated like any other health care and it should be noted that a majority of [health insurance] providers in America cover abortions just like they would anything else.” In terms of current negotiations, Cecile confirmed that the Capps Amendment is still very much on the table “but it is far from settled.” This would allow for there to be at least one plan in every part of the country that covers abortion in the health insurance exchange. At the same time, it would allow for a plan that does not cover abortions for those who morally object to buying a plan that makes abortion an option. While 40 Dems are allegedly planning on blocking the Capps Amendment, with anti-choicer Rep. Bart Stupak from my stomping ground in Michigan being the leader among them, Cecile holds out hope. “All of our grassroots supporters across the country feel strongly that women can’t lose an opportunity to have health care coverage that covers all of their needs.”
We here at Feministing know that discrimination abounds on the health care scene. “There are members in the United States Senate that don’t even believe that maternity care should be covered in the insurance exchange.” Cecile continued, “This is ridiculous.” She stays encouraged by always thinking about the broader community, the low-income folks who desperately need health care. She also makes it a point to remember the enormous need and the fact that our country is going in a better direction. “This administration understands women’s health. President Obama was elected as a pro-choice president and he has done several things that have improved the lives of women here and across the world.” But, she chided, “The election was just an opportunity to do the work on the ground to…bring our best game.”
What’s next on the horizon after we win health care? The Freedom Of Choice Act (FOCA)? “Well,” she said, “there will be a flood of women with access to reproductive health care. But,” she cautioned, “ballot measures and actions to block women’s rights on the state level should be expected for next fall.” As for FOCA, she contends that it has to be an electoral strategy. “It’s important that we work to support representatives that support women’s access. We haven’t gotten where we need to be yet.”

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