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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cecile Richards: 'Planned Parenthood Does More to Prevent Abortion than Any Other Agency'

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 4:30 PM

click to enlarge cecile_richards_hires.jpg
Update: An earlier version of this story Clarification has been clarified regarding the different territories of Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific and Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. Shasta Pacific covers San Francisco, and Mar Monte covers Oakland.

Talking about politics is like anchovies on pizza: a small, strange portion of the population claims to enjoy it, but most of us can't quite stomach it.

But Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, managed it elegantly last night at the Commonwealth Club, where she discussed her life, her mission, and recent congressional actions that Planned Parenthood has called the "most devastating assault on women's health in American history."

Besides all that, her poise inspired me to try talking politics again and see whether it still make me want to barf. More on that -- and the curious state of Planned Parenthood in San Francisco -- below.

Reproductive health has again entered the center ring in our political circus, with abortion as the most contentious issue and Planned Parenthood as the scapegoat. Heated statements have been hurled from both major parties and facts have been grandly embellished, most notably by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who mistakenly asserted that abortion is "over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." (He meant to say 3 percent. Oops.)

Despite their ridiculous nature, these exaggerations have affected the public perception of Planned Parenthood. Richards' response to anti-abortion hype has consistently been to shift attention toward preventative care. She claimed Tuesday night that Planned Parenthood "does more to prevent abortion than any other agency," and she emphasized the importance of providing birth control, breast exams, pap smears, and other services to women.

Richards also stressed the importance of educating young people, citing the exorbitant unplanned teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. She summarized the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood, saying, "We are witnessing, quite honestly, an extraordinary government intrusion into women's lives."

Richards and her family have spent a lifetime fighting such incursions. She opened the evening by describing her childhood. Her mother, Ann Richards, served as governor of Texas in the early '90s and ushered her daughter into the world of social justice. Cecile Richards recalled helping her mother campaign for Sarah Weddington, who, after her successful run for state legislature, famously argued Roe vs. Wade -- the case that legalized abortion -- before the U.S. Supreme Court at age 27. Richards stated, "I feel like, in many ways, my life has come full circle."

Planned Parenthood also received some flak locally when its Golden Gate affiliate shut down last fall. All seven six Planned Parenthood Golden Gate locations closed, including the location I relied on, making me feel like an indignant teenager getting her allowance taken away. I felt angry, but I also had a sneaking suspicion that I deserved it for not being more politically outspoken. Clinics disappeared from areas that most desperately needed them, including the Tenderloin as well as East and North Oakland.

(Here's a go at political talk: If you're skeptical of the need for clinics and the education they provide in these areas, I suggest you spend more time eavesdropping on high schoolers. While teaching at an Oakland high school, one of my students swore to me that drinking Mountain Dew every day was an effective form of birth control.)

The Bay Area has been transferred to two new affiliates, Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific and Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, but the groups have been slow to take over the expanded territory. Shasta Pacific has opened four new clinics, but only one in San Francisco (on Valencia at Mission). Mar Monte has yet to open any new clinics in Oakland.

As for the current lack of care in the Bay Area, Richards told me she felt confident in Shasta Pacific's "really strong health care background" and that it is "going to grow and be able to provide more care to women than the previous affiliate was able to." In the meantime, however, the Bay Area is left waiting for care.

In closing, Richards mentioned Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas physician who was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist. She called him "a courageous man who cared for women who had no one to care for them," and said, "His motto was, 'Trust women.' And he did."

Perhaps his message will reach as wide an audience as Jon Kyl's statements have. Although Planned Parenthood has been singing the praises of preventative care, it's reassuring to hear Richards remind us that abortion is still a right in this country. It's a reminder that all of us -- some of us more than others -- need to hear.

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About The Author

Kate Conger

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Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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