The following interview was aired on Friday on Moyers & Company
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. In the 40-plus years since the Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion with its Roe v. Wade decision, conservatives and the religious right have crusaded to overturn it, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Now in 1994, the violence reaches an all-time high.
BILL MOYERS: Thanks to a sustained legal strategy in particular, which includes achieving a Supreme Court majority of five conservative Catholic men, all appointed by Republican presidents, they have been inching toward success. This session alone, the court limited health insurance coverage for contraception and made it easier for protesters to demonstrate outside abortion clinics.
Meanwhile, several states have already passed regulations that effectively restrict access to safe, legal clinics. More than half the American women of reproductive age now live in states hostile to abortion access. Let me repeat that: more than half the women of reproductive age now live in states hostile to their constitutional right.
In Washington, Senate Democrats have introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act to counter those state and local restrictions on reproductive freedom. At a hearing this week voices were heard both for and against the bill:
NANCY NORTHRUP: This is the newest tactic in a four decade campaign to deprive women of the promise of Roe v. Wade. There have been, during those four decades, terrorizing physical attacks, clinics bombed, vandalized and torched, doctors and clinic workers murdered, and clinics blockaded. […] Today, women’s access to abortion services is being blocked through an avalanche of pretextual laws that are designed to accomplish by the pen what could not be accomplished through brute force: the closure of facilities providing essential reproductive healthcare to women of this country. At an alarming rate, states are passing laws that single out reproductive health providers for excessively burdensome regulations designed to regulate them out of practice under the false pretense of health and safety.
TED CRUZ: The legislation this committee is considering is extreme legislation. It is legislation designed to eliminate reasonable restrictions on abortion that states across this country have put in place. […] And it is also a very real manifestation of a war on women given the enormous health consequences that unlimited abortion has had damaging the health, and sometimes even the lives of women.
BILL MOYERS: We’ll talk about these and other developments now with Cecile Richards. Since she became president of the Planned Parenthood Federation in 2006, the number of its supporters has doubled to seven million. Before her current position, she organized low-wage workers in the hotel and health care fields in California, and founded the Texas Freedom Network to champion civil liberties and religious freedom in her native state. She also served as deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House. Cecile Richards, welcome.
CECILE RICHARDS: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: An impartial observer looking on could reasonably conclude that you’re losing the political battle over abortion.
CECILE RICHARDS: I actually don’t think that’s correct. Now, I will say that in 2010 the elections where frankly the Tea Party swept into the US House of Representatives and took over state legislatures and they have had a very clear agenda which is to roll back women’s access. But whenever these issues are actually on the ballot, whether in a candidate, or even, I’ll just give you an example.
The state of Mississippi where, you know, the far right tried to push the legislature, pushed a bill that would’ve outlawed abortion in that state. The voters of Mississippi, not a progressive state I don’t think we’d say, they overwhelmingly, rejected that.
BILL MOYERS: Yet 14 years ago a third of women of reproductive age lived in states considered hostile to abortion access. Now more than half do. Why is that not losing?
CECILE RICHARDS: I don’t think it’s the states, I think it’s the state legislatures. I do think the state legislatures have moved dramatically to the right, and not just on women’s issues, on a whole, on voting rights issues, on a whole host of issues.
Unfortunately, a wing of the Republican Party, the most extreme wing that believes abortion should not be legal, that believes birth control should not be available are really in charge of the primary process.
BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that your opponents have won the moral argument, that is they’ve convinced enough people in conservative circles that abortion is morally wrong, leaving politicians that you talk about no choice but to go where the voters lead?
CECILE RICHARDS: I fundamentally disagree with that. People, look, and we at Planned Parenthood talk to voters a lot, talk to the public a lot. People in this country believe that abortion is a very personal and often complex issue. They overwhelmingly believe, though, again that these are personal, private decisions that women have to be able to make with their doctors, with their family, with their loved ones.
And that the last thing they want is politicians making the most personal decisions for a family, that is, again, that crosses party line, that crosses gender, age. And young people in this country can’t imagine going back to a time where abortion was illegal and not available.
BILL MOYERS: You put your finger on the paradox. Surveys show the majority of Americans believe a woman and her doctor, not politicians, should be making these decisions. 68 percent of young Americans believe abortion services should be available where they live. Why doesn’t that translate into political success?
CECILE RICHARDS: I think it does. And I’ll give you a couple of examples, but we have a long way to go. I give you that. I, the last presidential election to me was quite interesting. I mean, that was by all, you know, was going to be a very close election by all accounts. But we had two candidates, you know, Mitt Romney who said he wanted to overturn Roe, that he wanted to get rid of Planned Parenthood, President Obama who strongly supported women’s rights.
We had the biggest gender gap ever in polling in a presidential election. And we just saw this in the Virginia governor’s race. Fascinating. You know, a race that I think folks thought was going to be very, very tough. Where you had two candidates. Terry McAuliffe, who supported women’s access to birth control, Planned Parenthood.
Ken Cuccinelli, the sitting attorney general, who opposed basically all of women’s rights. That, I would say that election was decided by women, you know? There was a nine point gender gap for Terry McAuliffe. He won that race by about two and a half points. So it’s when women know what’s at stake and they go out to vote, they can determine pretty much any election in the country.
BILL MOYERS: So given that, how do you explain that in our home state. Governor Rick Perry said that he intends to make abortion, “a thing of the past.” He’s succeeding there.
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, actually I disagree. He’s not making abortion a thing of the past. He’s making safe and legal abortion a thing of the past. And I think this is what’s very distressing and is that what, of course, the impact of these regulations are disproportionately felt on low income women, on women who are, live in rural areas of the state.
We’re having women now go across the border to Mexico because they can’t access legal abortion in the state of Texas. So again, you know, our goal at Planned Parenthood is to make abortion safe and legal and to help women get preventive care that they need to reduce unintended pregnancy in the first place. Unfortunately Governor Perry is doing away with all of that.
When the governor and the legislature started going after women’s health care in the state, ending the women’s health program, dozens of health centers that didn’t provide abortion services had to shut down because they served low income women and they didn’t have the funds to continue.
BILL MOYERS: There was a story out of Houston the other day that there’s now an underground railroad for women seeking abortion services.
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely, I think what we’re seeing is pre-Roe activities now of women trying to figure out how to get around the country because there are increasingly states where you may have a legal right to an abortion, but effectively you have no access. In Texas it’s really in some ways the test case for all of these restrictions. We’re going to, I think, this fall by September when all of these regulations come into effect, we’ll see in a state as large as, that’s as large as the country of France there’ll be seven, probably seven health centers left in the state of Texas where women can access a safe and legal abortion.
BILL MOYERS: Down from what?
CECILE RICHARDS: Oh dozens. But I think the thing that’s important, Bill, is that it’s far beyond that. Because the impact is certainly on the ability to access abortion services, but it also has been devastating on women’s ability to even access family planning and basic preventive care.
BILL MOYERS: I hear you saying and you and others that the constitutional right expressed in Roe v. Wade has hit the hard rock of political reality. Is Roe being rendered null and void by politics?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, we’re seeing some states, yes, where I believe the state legislatures are hollowing out the rights under Roe in every conceivable way. I think this court as well is, has been more sympathetic to those efforts to undermine women’s access. Again, not only to safe and legal abortion, but certainly to birth control as well. And that’s very worrisome.
BILL MOYERS: Do you really think that Women’s Health Protection Act that was debated this week could undo some of the damage being caused by this onslaught of regulations?
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely. And I think it’s so important. Essentially what the Women’s Health Protection Act does is says you have to treat women’s reproductive health care and abortion access like you do all other medical procedures, really to try to stem the tide of these extreme bills that are being passed that are created enormous barriers for women to just access basic legal rights.
BILL MOYERS: You heard Senator Cruz call it extreme legislation. He says the state restrictions on abortions are, and I’m quoting him, “reasonable,” and are intended to protect the health and safety of women. He also says it’s people like you and your allies who are waging this war on women by supporting unlimited abortion that has sometimes cost women their lives.
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I just, I don’t even know where to start. It is ironic that he comes from the state of Texas where the restrictions upon women’s ability to access again preventive care, family planning, safe and legal abortion have never been worse.
What we’re seeing in Texas is as radical as any state in the country in terms of eliminating women’s ability to plan their families. And, you know, I would also say to Senator Cruz it’s really important to recognize this is not a partisan issue for women.
Women, 99 percent of women in this country use family planning, okay. So that’s a news flash, I think something he ought to look at.
98 percent of Catholic women have used family planning at some point. So for women, birth control is not a moral issue. It’s not a social issue. It is a basic healthcare issue. It’s an economic issue.
And women, men, the majority of this country supports Roe, they support women being able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. And they, I can absolutely guarantee what they don’t want is politicians making the most personal, private decisions that women and their families make.
BILL MOYERS: What is your response to what some of your opponents say that abortion is vastly different from other procedures and therefore needs higher medical standards? Is there any merit in that argument?
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely none. I mean, again, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the country. And so it is, this is, and I think it, look, it’s something I think we have to talk about is that it is, this is something that has, one of the most incredible things that I think that has happened since the Roe decision, and I talk to doctors who were around pre-Roe who said, you know, routinely young healthy women were dying in emergency rooms across this country simply because they had no access to terminate a pregnancy in a medical setting.
So, look, we’ve have had politicians admit it. You know, they say that they’re for women’s health and safety, but they’re not. They simply want to close down access to abortion services and as Governor Perry said, make abortion in his words, “a thing of the past.”
BILL MOYERS: If the services continue to be closed down as is happening in Texas, why can’t hospitals start taking up the slack? Couldn’t they offer patients considerably more privacy, for example, than these health centers where there are protestors outside confronting the women?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I mean, look, I’m very grateful to hospitals that do provide abortion services. And I would hope more of them would be. I mean, as you know, many of the hospitals in this country now are owned by the Catholic Church or have Catholic affiliation. They not only will not provide abortion services, they will not provide a whole host of reproductive healthcare.
And so there has to be in this country a public health care system that will ensure that women can get access to the care that they need regardless of religion. And that is becoming increasingly a problem. And not only, it’s a problem in Texas, it’s a problem across the country.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you this, this Hobby Lobby decision gives the owner of a business on religious grounds, the power to deny coverage of birth control to–
CECILE RICHARDS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: –his employees. Saying in effect, that the religious beliefs of the owner triumph over the preventive health needs for women workers. Capital has religious rights, labor doesn’t. Where’s this going to take us?
CECILE RICHARDS: I don’t know. I mean, look, this is, this decision, which I know some people have described has narrow, is very troublesome. I mean, I think certainly Justice Ginsberg dissent is correct. This is full of minefields. I was actually there for the Hobby Lobby argument, and it was stunning to see the lack of regard for women.
But from that decision, and other decisions that have, that, you know, certainly had the buffer zone decision, you know, it’s better to be a corporation today than to be a woman in front of the Supreme Court. And I think that the Hobby Lobby decision is just the beginning of giving corporations free license to obey those rules and laws that they agree with and not ones that they don’t agree with.
BILL MOYERS: Giving the owners–
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: –or the managers and share–
CECILE RICHARDS: The CEOs, that’s right.
BILL MOYERS: It’s the CEOs.
CECILE RICHARDS: That’s correct–
BILL MOYERS: They will be calling the shots more often?
CECILE RICHARDS: That’s exactly right. How could the rights of one CEO, you know, or the beliefs, the religious beliefs of one CEO and his family trump the right of thousands of women to make their own decision? Nothing about the Affordable Care Act requires women to use birth control.
But as we’re already seeing, millions of women are already benefiting from being able to make that decision themselves. To make their own choice about what kind of birth control they’d like to use, if they want to use it, and to get it paid for and to help plan their families.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t those owners saying, well, we can’t provide it because of our religious objections. But they can get it from the government.
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I mean, you look at this decision as if somehow that we’re going to just throw everything back to this Congress to fix? I just think it is, I mean, it’s not even laughable because, of course, the future and the healthcare of millions of women are at stake.
But I– that’s where I feel like the Supreme Court completely overstepped their bounds, which is this is a law. This is a law that was passed by Congress, that is, that has now been in effect. Millions of women are accessing birth control.
This is really opening the door to saying to employers, if you, or CEOs, you know, if you have a religious objection to this or anything else, I mean, with you, it’s a slippery slope here, that you can actually, you know, we’ll let the government try to figure out what to do about it.
BILL MOYERS: Have we opened another stage in the old debate in this country over religious liberties?
CECILE RICHARDS: I absolutely think so, I mean, we believe in religious liberties, but not the right of, to use your religion and enforce your religion, your religious beliefs on someone else.
BILL MOYERS: So why do you think Hobby Lobby erupted in the public awareness? What was it about that decision that caught the public imagination?
CECILE RICHARDS: Some folks aren’t necessarily following the day to day like you and I do perhaps on all these issues. And when they heard that the Supreme Court had said that there were women who couldn’t get birth control from their employer, I think people were just in shock. Really, disbelief, that somehow it’s 2014 and we are still arguing about women being able to access birth control? It just doesn’t make sense. Again, you have every woman in the country virtually using it. They don’t see this as a controversial issue.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think will come from the court’s junking of the 35-foot buffer zone?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, we’re already seeing in Massachusetts that absolutely, immediately after that decision eliminating the buffer zone we had record numbers of protesters outside of the following women all the way up to the door of our health center in Massachusetts. These are not all kindly, elderly ladies simply whispering in the ears.
And even if they were, it is the right of women in this country to be able to access healthcare that they need without harassment and without the advice of dozens of people outside their health center. I mean, can you imagine if, you know, if men in this country, before going into their doctor had to walk through a gauntlet of protesters telling them, you know, whether it’s not to get a colonoscopy or just go down the list. It’s incredible.
I think now we’ll see challenges to buffer zones across the country. And look, I, it’s hard not to escape the irony of the enormous buffer zone that the Supreme Court enjoys in front of their court. And why we can’t afford that same right to women who are simply trying to access healthcare, I just don’t understand.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever see that HBO documentary the “Soldiers in the Army of God”? Here’s some scenes from it.
PAUL HILL in Soldiers in the Army of God: Abortionists are murderers! Murderers should be executed!
I definitely felt that the Lord wanted me to shoot the abortionists.
BOB LOKEY in Soldiers in the Army of God: We need a civil war that will kill a whole lot of people.
NEWS REPORTER in Soldiers in the Army of God: Investigators say evidence places Rudolph at the bombing. They aren’t sure whether others may be involved.
REGINA DINWIDDIE in Soldiers in the Army of God: I hate to quote Chairman Mao, but he was right: kill one, scare a thousand.
NEWS REPORTER in Soldiers in the Army of God: Dr. John Britton and clinic volunteer Jim Barrett lay dead. Police arrested Paul Hill a half block away.
BILL MOYERS: Most people who oppose abortion wouldn’t advocate that kind of violence. But how do you explain the passion that enters into this debate?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well look, I think this is always going to be a topic where people have strong personal feelings. But I do believe the rhetoric that is now, that is sort of tolerated, and frankly that we hear from elected officials oftentimes does encourage people to sort of put women in a certain place, certainly doctors in a certain place.
And, you know, it’s very tough to watch this footage. But I think it’s important because, of course, this is why the Massachusetts buffer zone was passed in the first place. This was not simply an intellectual idea, it was because women and doctors and clinicians were under enormous personal safety risks. And–
BILL MOYERS: The two people were murdered there.
CECILE RICHARDS: That’s correct. And listen, in my eight years at Planned Parenthood, the toughest day was on a Sunday morning when I got a call that George Tiller in Kansas had been shot in his church. And amazingly courageous man who had cared for women in a, the most selfless and, again, always at risk for his own safety. We can’t go back to those days. And that’s where when you ask me where is this country, that’s not where this country wants to go. And we’re not going to.
BILL MOYERS: Have you received any death threats?
CECILE RICHARDS: I try not to read everything that comes in over the transom. And the folks I really, I think when I get up in the morning, I don’t fear for myself. But I take very seriously the safety of our doctors and our clinicians and our patients. And that’s foremost in my mind all the time.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a war on women? Or has that become a convenient metaphor?
CECILE RICHARDS: It’s not a term I use. But in some ways, if the shoe fits, you know, I feel like I don’t like to think there’s a war on women. But the evidence is that there is certainly within some, certainly some elements of the Republican party, and unfortunately a lot of the leadership, and a lot of politicians in this country, folks who are uncomfortable, I believe, with women being equal in America.
And, I mean, it’s why we can’t seem to pass, you know, we can’t pass an equal pay bill, we can’t, we don’t want to have women access to reproductive healthcare. And I just don’t think young people in this country are going to let them get away with it. And that’s what, you know, that’s my hope, is that it’s our kids and their generation that aren’t going to go back to a day when women were second-class citizens in America.
BILL MOYERS: Cecile Richards, thank you very much for being with me.
CECILE RICHARDS: It’s so good to see you, Bill. Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, there’s some essential reading on what we’ve just talked about, and a look at how the states and this year’s candidates are handling the issue of reproductive freedom.
Watch the discussion, as posted online on Friday, below.