Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, spoke at Georgetown University on April 20 to a packed Lohrfink Auditorium in an event organized by the Lecture Fund. In her remarks, Richards emphasized the important role of young people in the future of the political fight for reproductive rights.
Representatives from the Lecture Fund began the event with a short introduction, which emphasized the organization’s nonpartisan mission and reiterated Georgetown’s Free Speech and Expression Policy. “I encourage everyone to do something that I personally don’t think students do enough of, which is just listen,” said Helen Brosnan (COL ‘16), Executive Board Chair of the Lecture Fund, “and in the true Jesuit spirit of Georgetown, reflect.”
Georgetown University Women of Color, H*yas for Choice, Medical Students for Choice, and Georgetown University College Democrats co-sponsored the event.
Sophia Kleyman (COL ‘16) and Michaela Pepi-Lewis (COL ‘18), President and Vice President of H*yas for Choice respectively, introduced Richards to applause and a standing ovation.
Richards began by expressing her hope that H*yas for Choice becomes a university-recognized student group in the future and thanking Georgetown for allowing her to accept the Lecture Fund’s invitation to speak. “I love that Georgetown students are the kind of folks that can listen to people even if they don’t agree with them,” she said.
Richards tied the controversy surrounding her visit to the work of civil rights activists and recent efforts at Georgetown to reconcile the University’s history of slavery. “I think every bit of progress that we’ve made in this country, and that we make as a people, make in the world, is because there are people willing to speak up and speak out even when it’s unpopular,” she said. “Most times, more often than not, it’s been young people leading the charge.”
Richards emphasized the role of young people in coming elections, praising the current generation of college students. “You believe in civil rights. You believe in LGBT rights. You believe in reproductive rights. You believe in equal pay and you believe that global warming is real and serious.” She commended the work of young anti-sexual assault activists and Black Lives Matter activists in particular.
After describing her own personal history of activism, Richards recalled Planned Parenthood’s founding in 1916 when birth control was illegal. The 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood is this coming October.
She recounted the advances in reproductive rights of the last century including the creation of the birth control pill and legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade. “None of these things happened just on their own. They happened because people either challenged the law or challenged conventional wisdom and the results changed opportunities for women in profound ways.”
Richards attributes the 30-year low in the rate of unintended pregnancy and the 40 year low in the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S.s to family planning, and urged her audience to look optimistically towards the future. “Can you imagine the progress we could make if Congress quit trying to defund Planned Parenthood and actually increased access to family planning in America? It would be revolutionary,” said Richards.
She called for more women and racial diversity in government, particularly on the Supreme Court, and a repeal of the Hyde Amendment. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a Supreme Court that represented the diversity of America?” Richards asked. She also defended Planned Parenthood against accusations made in a series of videos, which implicated the organization in the sale of fetal tissue for biomedical research. “Planned Parenthood has never sold fetal tissue and never would sell fetal tissue,” Richards said. State investigations into the video found no evidence of illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood, and individuals involved in making the video recording have been indicted by a grand jury.
There was time for four student questions during the Q&A period, during which two students cited statistics challenging Planned Parenthood and Richards. “You often call pro-life people extremist,” said Amber Athey (COL ‘16). She referred to a YouGov poll that found that 52% of Americans believe life begins at conception and 11% believe life begins at birth and asked Richards, “I’m wondering why the 52% of Americans are extremists, but the 11% are not?”
Richards responded by calling labels like “pro-life” misleading, and stressed her position that a woman’s pregnancy decision should be made without politicians. She referenced recent legislation unsuccessfully proposed in Mississippi and South Dakota to ban abortion. “There were millions of people who may personally have their own feelings about abortion and may not believe that it would be right for them or their families but who absolutely feel it is not their right to make that decision for another woman,” said Richards in her final comment.
Caroline Genster (COL ‘19), a member of H*yas for Choice, said she felt honored to be able to see Richards speak. “Having her here does speak to Georgetown’s mission of encouraging intellectual discussion and most importantly, I think that Planned Parenthood actually really does live out one of Georgetown’s values, of cura personalis, the idea of caring for the whole person.” She recognized the University’s need to adhere to Catholic doctrine but hoped that in the future H*yas for Choice would be recognized as a student group.
Elizabeth Velez, Professor in the English and Women and Gender’s Studies Departments and Director of the Community Scholars program, was impressed with how Richards articulated her positions. “I’m happy that she talked so openly about abortion, because I think a lot of times when we talk about reproductive justice, which is a great term and is the right term, we kind of gloss over that that includes that word abortion,” she said.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve seen during my career at Georgetown,” said Velez of seeing Richards speak. ”This is a place where young women are, they need to be able to hear this and to deny them the right to hear that would be so upsetting to me. I applaud Georgetown and I applaud the Lecture Fund.”