It can be said with some confidence that televised hearings of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, an investigative body dedicated to upholding congressional standards, do not generally break audience records.
Last Tuesday, when Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, appeared at a hearing to account for her organisation’s federal funding, it might have only attracted political die-hards. But during the course of a day-long appearance, Richards was interrogated with such undisguised contempt, such outright hostility and disregard for the facts, that video of the hearing jumped out of the political and into the popular realm.
In the days that followed, Richards was stopped at every juncture – on the train back to New York, on the subway, in the coffee shop next to her office – by people echoing disbelief both at how she had been treated, and the things ostensibly sane Republican congressman had said. The footage was so bananas, says Richards, that “it has really ignited people who don’t think about this day in and day out”.
“This” is women’s reproductive rights, an issue that, 40-odd years after Roe v Wade, is still as central to US electoral politics as it ever was.
Richards, who has run Planned Parenthood since 2006, was hauled before the committee to answer a charge that surfaces so regularly you could set your watch by it: that Planned Parenthood funds abortion and should, therefore, be divested of its federal funding.
For the umpteenth time, and with the patience of someone dealing with the hard of thought, she explained that abortion made up a fraction of its services – depending on how you do the calculation, somewhere between the 3% of Planned Parenthood’s reckoning and 12% of other auditors, but not the 94% fantasy math of some conservative pundits.
The vast majority of the non-profit’s work is in providing OB/GYN services to low-income women, a distinction understood, at this point, by all but a few hermits in their caves and the entire field of Republican presidential candidates.
A week after the hearing, we are in a meeting room at Planned Parenthood’s offices in midtown Manhattan, where there is a framed photo on the wall of the late Ann Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas from 1991-95 – and Cecile Richards’ mother.
Richards senior, who died in 2006, was a political hero to a generation of women and at 58, her daughter is on the way to assuming a similar stature.
I observe Richards is pretty battle-hardened by now (“Do I look that bad?” she says, with her customary mixture of CEO snap and Texan charm), but even she was shocked by the tone of her Republican inquisitors. Representative Steve Russell of Oklahoma challenged Richards’ assertion that Planned Parenthood had seen 2.7 million patients in 2013, saying she failed to account for “the 327,000 aborted children” it had also “seen”.
Jim Jordan of Ohio, sounding for all the world if he was hopping from one foot to another, told her to answer his question, then as she began to answer, yelled at her to answer his question. This went on for some time.
Richards said she was “stunned by the total lack of civility and raw use of power, particularly against the women that we serve”, but unsurprised by the ignorance. She has, after all, dealt with Congress before. “You had folks who really knew very little either about women’s health, or what we do, and apparently didn’t even want to know.”
There is no question, however, of how dire the threat to women’s health is at this point, as moderate Republicanism dies in the face of a political extremism unseen in the last few decades.
“In this primary, I think they’ve moved even further to the right than Governor Romney,” says Richards, quite an achievement given Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign pledge to eliminate Planned Parenthood.
“In this coming presidential election, Roe vs Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue ” – one of the charges against the organisation is that it sells fetal tissue to scientific researchers – “it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”
It is within the memory of doctors in this country that young women died in emergency rooms because abortion was illegal
In an age when “it is within the memory of doctors in this country that young healthy women were dying in emergency rooms because abortion was illegal”, the stakes couldn’t get any higher. “We’re at an incredibly important moment.”
It was somewhat inevitable that this would be Richards’ life. Growing up in Dallas, where both parents were involved in leftwing causes – her father is a retired civil rights lawyer – she undertook her first political protest at the age of 12, by wearing a black arm band to school to protest the Vietnam war. “The principal called me into his office and said, ‘we’re going to call your mother.’ The good news for him is that she wasn’t home.”
Richards never went through a period of rebellion against her parents’ politics, despite the fact they were fish-out-of-water in conservative Texas. “We were always going against the grain for something. Farm workers, you name it.” But, she says, “it always felt like that was the right thing to do”.
After graduating from Brown University, Richards became a labor organizer and over the years would help out on her mother’s campaigns. While her father was too hot-headed ever to be a politician – “irascible, that was an adjective created for my father”, says Richards – her mother taught her a vital political lesson about “rising above the fray”, a virtue Richard’s demonstrated last week.
Ann Richards also expounded the value of getting on with a broad range of people. “She really broke ground. She wasn’t your classic woman politician. She could mix it up with the good ol’ boys. She was a unique woman.”
There will come a point in electoral politics when, thanks to equal representation with men, a woman politician with unfeminist views will cease to be a disappointment. But we’re not there yet, and Richards, in spite of herself, was appalled by Carly Fiorina’s recent attack on Planned Parenthood, in which she claimed to have seen video footage of a live abortion performed by the organisation wherein the fetus, with “heart beating” and “legs kicking” was kept alive so doctors could “harvest its brain”. As Chuck Todd, among others , pointed out to Fiorina, there is no evidence to suggest that this scene actually exists, to which Fiorina responded, “that scene absolutely does exist,” a claim not even the anti-abortionists who shot the undercover video have made, without a lot of qualifiers about the use of stock footage.
“Look,” says Richards, “she can have her own position about abortion, and people have deeply personal feelings about that. But you don’t get to lie about an organisation. That has stunned me. I welcome her to come into a Planned Parenthood health center, so that she get some more information.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath. In any case, there are bigger fights at hand. Earlier this year, Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, moved to strip Planned Parenthood clinics in his state of Medicaid funding, arguing there were thousands of other healthcare options for women. “Well, it turned out when they provided a list from the state, it included dentists offices and retirement homes,” says Richards. “The congressional budget office, which is non-partisan, said that 380,000 women would lose healthcare next year if folks couldn’t come to Planned Parenthood.”
It is a similar story country-wide: a shortage of healthcare providers that take Medicaid, “particularly for OB/GYN services. Women’s health has always been the stepchild of the entire healthcare system.” If Planned Parenthood goes, there are, for many women, particularly in rural areas, “very few options for OB/GYN care”. Richards has said this thousands of times, and will continue to say it without a flicker of frustration until it hits home.
As I get up to leave, I pass the photo of Ann Richards, a startling portrait in which she is dressed in Texan cowboy gear and looks like a combination of Patsy Cline, Barbara Bush and the Lone Ranger.
Richards’ dad, meanwhile, who is well into his 80s, anticipated how bad it would be for his daughter last week and offered to fly in from Texas just to sit in her apartment while she appeared before Congress.
“It was so dear,” says Richards, but the encounter only enervated her. “Look, I have felt the warm embrace of literally hundreds of thousands of people. The hearing was not about me; it’s about all of us. It’s about how do you bring women into that room who are never going to have the chance to testify before Congress? How do we make sure their voice is there?”
At the end of the day, she thinks the Republicans did Planned Parenthood a favor. “They have put this issue way up high in the consciousness of the American people. It’s not like people are going to go ‘oh God I had no idea.’ If a candidate for president wants to end safe and legal abortion, get rid of Planned Parenthood and end access to family planning? That’s a very tough sell for the American people.”
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