Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, speaks at Tufts Hillel Merrin Moral Voices in Cohen Auditorium on March 28, 2017. Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily

Cecile Richards optimistic about reproductive rights activism

Outgoing Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards discussed the state of reproductive rights in America in a packed Cohen Auditorium yesterday.

The event was hosted by Merrin Moral Voices, a Hillel initiative, with support from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Richards was introduced by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, the Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel, and Sara Schiff, a senior who serves as co-chair of Moral Voices, along with sophomore Jennifer Gray.

Richards opened her lecture by imploring students to take action in support of causes they believe in.

“I really hope that in whatever you do with your life, you never let practicality stand in the way of idealism,” she said. “It’s really important, and, in fact, I think if what you’re trying to do doesn’t seem impossible, you might need to set your sights a little bit higher.”

Richards also discussed the importance of being an activist now, and her own past activism, in an interview with the Daily before the event.

“I think one of the most important things I learned as a college student was when there was something that I felt passionately about, to just jump in,” she told the Daily. “I am really excited to see what I think is an outpouring of young people all across this country standing for what they believe in.”

In her speech and interview with the Daily, Richards referenced young activists such as Alice Brown Otter, who ran 1,519 miles from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C. at the age of twelve to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Deja Foxx, who gained prominence at the age of sixteen after asking Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) why he had the right to try and take away her ability to access Planned Parenthood at a town hall in Mesa, Arizona.

Richards spoke about the opportunities that have been opened up to women because of strides in reproductive health, citing the statistic that the number of women graduating from college is six times what it was before birth control was legal. 

Richards also referenced the record number of women (22) currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

“Wait, wait,” Richards said before the audience could applaud. “You know what would actually be better than that? As Senator Claire McCaskill said, ‘Fifty.’’’

“I don’t think the future is female,” Richards added. “I think the present is female, and that’s what really matters.”

In her interview with the Daily, Richards talked about the #MeToo movement, and how increased dialogue about sexual assault and harassment on college campuses among young people can lead to lasting change in post-graduation life.

“I think nothing is a given, and we have to fight for everything we believe in, but there is definitely a generational change,” Richards said. “I think for many of us, we put up with sexual harassment or wage disparity, or all kinds of issues that I think [this] generation of young people believes is unacceptable.”

Richards spoke about her work towards passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as well, emphasizing that what held up the passage of the ACA was not the high cost of prescription drugs or lack of coverage for preexisting conditions, but controversies surrounding abortion and birth control. Richards also referenced a debate in the Senate over whether or not the ACA should cover maternity benefits, during which former Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected to covering maternity benefits because, he said, he had never needed them.

Richards, who plans to step down from her position later this year, told the Daily that her proudest accomplishment as President of Planned Parenthood was getting a call from President Barack Obama during the ACA fight. Obama told her that, after an intense campaign, he was about to announce that all women under insurance plans would get birth control covered at no cost.

“In progressive politics, it’s true: You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win, and when you do, it’s amazing, and it’s worth the fight,” Richards said during her lecture.

In an interview with the Daily, Richards said that at that moment, she knew her work had resonance beyond her organization.

“I knew that was about so much more than Planned Parenthood. That was about changing the opportunities for a generation, and once you fight for something like that that’s really hard to get, and you get it, that makes it much harder for them to take it away, and I think that’s what this administration under President Trump is finding out,” Richards told the Daily.

During her lecture, Richards spoke further about the effects of Donald Trump’s administration on reproductive healthcare.

“In the first weeks after the election, Planned Parenthood saw a 900-percent spike in women making appointments to get an IUD that lasts several years,” Richards said. “They wanted birth control that would outlast the Trump administration, and they knew just where to get it.”

In an interview with the Daily, Richards also talked about Democrats supporting candidates with more conservative views towards reproductive rights in order to win in red states, emphasizing her belief that the right of all people to make their own decisions about their bodies is inalienable.

“I don’t see how you trade off rights for some kind of political expediency,” Richards told the Daily. “On the practical side, I’ve been doing this work now with Planned Parenthood and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund for 12 years, and I have never seen where it’s an advantage for a candidate to be against women’s rights. That, to me, is being proven over and over again.”

Richards ended her speech by talking about the importance of being an indefatigable activist, of standing up for what you believe in and of learning from those around you.

“You stand on the shoulders of history makers and troublemakers and courageous men and women who came before you in the fight for justice,” Richards said. “But if your passion is reproductive rights or any other issue that affects the lives of people in this country, this is your moment to envision the world you really believe in and want to live in, and then go out and build it.”

Richards quoted the playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote in “Angels in America:” “The world only spins forward.”

“As activists and organizers and ordinary people who give a damn, it’s our job to make sure that the world keeps spinning forward,” she said.

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