Planned Parenthood’s president Cecile Richards thriving amid controversy

If you want to know how effective Cecile Richards is, just ask her opponents.

As the president of Planned Parenthood — both its clinical operations and its political advocacy arm — Richards, who recently sat down for an interview with The Hill, is no stranger to controversy.

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Many interest groups would hunker down in the face of near-constant attacks, but Richards has welcomed the fight — and leveraged it into immense political clout.

“The issues that have come up have been enormously galvanizing,” Richards said.

While some of Richards’s allies in the abortion-rights movement openly worry that they’re on the wrong side of an intensity gap among young voters, Richards waves off those concerns.

“I actually feel a little bit the opposite, which is young people, many of whom were born [after] the Roe decision, they just assume this is the law of the land,” Richards said.

It’s been 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled, in Roe v. Wade, that abortion is legal. Yet it remains one of the most polarizing social issues in politics, especially as Republican-led states pursue new restrictions on when abortion can be performed.

Planned Parenthood is at the center of the abortion debate, as one of the most powerful abortion-rights lobbies and also as a leading abortion provider.

Planned Parenthood provides roughly 27 percent of the 1.2 million abortions performed each year in the U.S. — more than any other single provider.

But even one of Planned Parenthood’s fiercest opponents said Richards has handled the politics of the abortion debate well.

“She is really good at what she does. ... She’s attractive, she’s a good communicator, she’s got a lot of money,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and a staunch opponent of abortion rights.

The most frustrating part of squaring off against Richards, Dannenfelser said, is that candidates who oppose abortion rights are afraid to focus on the issue because they fear the resources Planned Parenthood can bring to bear.

“She’s been able to create fear with this threat of a tidal wave of disapproval,” Dannenfelser said. “Who in the political world would not wish for a situation like that?”

Dannenfelser believes the tide will soon turn in her side’s favor, especially on the issue of late-term abortion. But she said Republicans have helped give Planned Parenthood the political upper hand by marginalizing the abortion issue, while Democrats embrace Planned Parenthood as part of their broader push for the female vote.

Indeed, President Obama recently became the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood’s national policy conference. And Richards was thrilled to see Planned Parenthood mentioned by name during a presidential debate, as Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney faced off over a provision of Obama’s healthcare law that broadens access to birth control.

“That was exciting to see — that Planned Parenthood, the healthcare we provide and these issues were a big part of how the election turned out, both in terms of young people and in terms of women,” Richards said.

Roughly 11 percent of the women who went to Planned Parenthood received an abortion in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Abortion makes up about 3 percent of the total services Planned Parenthood provides (most patients use more than one service). Contraception and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases make up 73 percent.

Critics say Richards — and the president — emphasize contraception and other services to distract from the abortion debate. But the number of women who have turned to Planned Parenthood at some point in their lives — 1 in 5, according to Richards — helps explain the grassroots support the group has been able to harness.

“When Planned Parenthood was under attack by the U.S. House of Representatives, the alumni association of Planned Parenthood, if you will, just came out in force,” Richards said. “Most of the people who were activists on that issue were Planned Parenthood patients, former or present.”

Planned Parenthood’s college chapters have doubled in the past two years, she said, and she has seen young supporters organizing “like nothing I have ever seen” in the roughly seven years she has spent there.

Contraception — the biggest chunk of Planned Parenthood’s services — has become controversial in its own right. Republicans have attacked the provision in Obama’s healthcare law mandating birth control coverage separately from the abortion debate.

“I think some of us have always believed that the same people who are out there fighting against women’s rights to make their own decisions about pregnancy also oppose birth control,” Richards said. “But the thought that they would go after birth control aggressively and continue to go after birth control as a benefit says to me they are completely out of touch with America, and they’re definitely out of touch with young women and men for whom birth control is just a fact of life.”

Richards said Obama’s healthcare law was a major step forward for a movement that has been fighting an uphill battle for decades.

“In the early days, it was illegal to even hand out information about birth control, and now of course 99 percent of women use it at some point in their lifetime. And the fact that it’s being treated like all other medical care is really fantastic,” Richards said.

In her stint at Planned Parenthood, Richards has presided over enormous growth in the organization’s grassroots activism, which goes hand-in-hand with its national political presence.

“That’s really been my goal, is to make sure we’re expanding our reach,” she said.

Young people are at the core of Planned Parenthood’s outreach, and the next big push is to expand its reach with young men. So far, the focus on young people seems to be working — and Obama’s birth control mandate has helped.

“To talk to young women who are now getting birth control covered for no copay — I mean, they stop me all the time on campuses, on the street,” Richards said. “It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal.”

She got the same reaction when she introduced herself to another guest at a “big fancy dinner” for female CEOs.

“You could tell immediately — here she is, head of a major corporation, totally has a great life, all organized, wonderful family. She says, ‘I’ll never forget when I went to Planned Parenthood,’ ” Richards said.