Cecile Richards v. Marjorie Dannenfelser

Planned Parenthood’s president and the leader of Donald Trump’s pro-life coalition are two women who have lived very different lives and champion very different causes.

Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood and Marjorie Dannenfelser (right) of Susan B. Anthony List
Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood and Marjorie Dannenfelser (right) of Susan B. Anthony List (photo: Left: Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Susan B. Anthony List and Facebook.)

WASHINGTON — Although Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards is no admirer of President Donald Trump, the nation’s foremost abortion advocate seems to be intent on adopting one of the president’s most-remarked-upon habits: tweeting.

At present, the American Health Care Act, the recently approved House bill designed to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), is the target of Richards’ furious campaign on Twitter.

“The House just passed the worst bill for women in a generation. The #AHCA blocks access to PP, takes coverage away from millions,” Richards tweeted on May 4, after the bill’s passage in the House.

When a photo of the Republican senators charged with revising the House bill before the upper chamber votes was published, Richards was struck that the senators pictured were all male senators. This called for another tweet: “When women aren’t at the table, we’re on the menu.”

Meanwhile, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has praised the AHCA on Facebook as “pro-life all the way.”

“First, the legislation stops the Obamacare abortion expansion by preventing taxpayer funding of health care plans that cover abortion on demand,” Dannenfelser said in a statement. “Second, the bill redirects taxpayer dollars away from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion business, to health care centers that provide comprehensive primary and preventative care to women and girls.” She urged the Senate “to keep these non-negotiable provisions and quickly advance this bill to the president’s desk.”

Dannenfelser and Richards: two very different women who have become the faces of two movements that oppose each other.

If the presidential election had turned out differently, their roles would be reversed: Richards would be the White House insider, while Dannenfelser — who recently hosted Vice President Mike Pence as the keynote speaker (for the second time) at Susan B. Anthony List’s annual gala in April — would be fighting against an entrenched pro-abortion administration. Even so, Planned Parenthood, which was founded a century ago by Margaret Sanger and has an annual revenue of around $1.3 billion (including around $500 million from the federal government) has to be considered the Goliath in the equation. By way of comparison, Susan B. Anthony List raised and spent around $18 million in the 2015-2016 election cycle.

During an interview with the Register, Dannenfelser laughed at the comparison and pointed out that David won because “David was armed with the truth.”


Dannenfelser’s Pro-Life Convictions

The unexpected outcome of the 2016 presidential election has improved the fortunes of the pro-life movement and sharply raised the political profile of Dannenfelser, who threw her support behind Trump last summer and led a “pro-life coalition” endorsing his campaign.

Today Dannenfelser firmly believes that GOP lawmakers’ move to defund Planned Parenthood, a stated goal of the Trump administration, can succeed.

“If you’d asked me if that could happen five years ago, I would have said that I hoped so. But now, I’d say absolutely — it is possible,” she said.

She partly credits the David Daleiden video sting for this development: “Planned Parenthood thought they could never be touched, and they weren’t prepared.”

Richards never responded to a request for an interview made through Planned Parenthood, but the stories of the two women, where they came from and how they got where they are, are full of contrasts, both in style and substance. At the same time, both stories say a lot about their respective causes.

Dannenfelser is a former South Carolina debutante and daughter of a doctor who graduated from Duke University and was a staunch defender of abortion until an argument erupted in a Washington, D.C., group house for Republican interns where then-Marjorie Jones from Greenville was living. Dannenfelser was a philosophy major, and she brought to bear the skills of her discipline to re-examine her position on abortion. When she thought it over, she recalled, it seemed quite obvious: “It was as if all your life you’d called a boat a tree and then you realized it was a boat.”

As a convert to the pro-life cause, the philosophy major believed early on that if you just let people know the truth, they will be receptive and join the pro-life side.

She soon found out otherwise, after she took the mic at a campus gathering at Duke and made the pro-life argument. “You’d have thought that I had said, ‘Let’s burn a witch on the quad today,’” she recalled.

Dannenfelser also converted from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism, drawn in part, she has said, to the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the Virgin Mary. An experienced political activist, Dannenfelser was one of the founders of the Susan B. Anthony List in the 1990s and went to work for the organization shortly after it began. She is married to Marty Dannenfelser, whom she met when she was working for the Republican pro-life caucus and he was working for Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. The couple live in Arlington, Virginia, and have five children.


Richards’ Progressive Roots

Cecile Richards is also a daughter of the South, with an impeccable pro-abortion pedigree. In the unlikely event that she has ever had doubts about the morality of abortion, it isn’t recorded.

She hails from a renowned progressive family: Her mother was the late Democratic Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who famously quipped at the 1988 Democratic Convention that verbal-gaffe-prone President George H. W. Bush had been “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Earlier in her career, Ann Richards served as a legislative assistant to Sarah Weddington when Weddington was in the Texas Legislature. Weddington went on to become the lead lawyer who argued the Roe v. Wade case, which legalized abortion.

As a teenager, Cecile worked in Weddington’s political campaigns. The Richards family attended a Unitarian church when Cecile was growing up, though Cecile was enrolled in St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, a progressive school in Austin, after being punished by her public school for wearing a black arm band in protest against the war in Vietnam.

Cecile Richard’s father is lawyer David Richards, also a political activist, who complained of “right-wing lunacy” in Dallas in the 1960s in his memoir Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State.

Cecile enrolled in Brown University, where she deepened her political activism, attending an anti-nuclear protest in lieu of her college-graduation ceremony.

Later, she would go on to serve as Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.

“Cecile helped me set up the whip office,” Pelosi told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin.

“Everyone knows she’s politically astute and a wonderful communicator, but she’s also a great administrator. She could be the president.”

Richards also founded several progressive organizations before she assumed the reins at Planned Parenthood in 2006. She is married to Kirk Adams, executive director of the Healthcare Education Project, a lobbying organization that is a joint project of the Service Employees International Union and the Greater New York Hospital Association. They have three children, the oldest of whom, Lily, served as press secretary for Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate.


‘Activist, Troublemaker, Agitator’

When Richards gave the commencement address at Barnard College in New York in 2014, she talked about the centrality of activism in her life and reminisced about her politically active girlhood. “Commencement speeches must have a message — and so to make this simple, here’s mine: Life as an activist, troublemaker, agitator is a tremendous option and one I highly recommend,” she said.

“Growing up in Dallas in the ’60s,” Richards continued, “my parents were into every movement that came through town. My dad defended conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. My mother dragged us as kids to the grocery store, demanding to see the union label on the grapes. And then there was the day she went to hear an activist named Gloria Steinem and came home a new convert to this thing called women’s liberation.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said that it would be impossible to overestimate Richards’ status in the Democratic Party. She told of a friend who observed that, when Richards came into a room on Capitol Hill, the reaction among Democratic lawmakers was such that the friend joked, “I was waiting for someone to kiss her ring.”

The source of the power, said Tobias, is that Planned Parenthood has a great deal of money to give to candidates. “Planned Parenthood pretty much controls the Democratic Party,” Tobias argued, “and so all candidates have to support Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood has a lot of money, and candidates need money.”

An analysis by the Daily Signal, based on figures from Open Secrets, of Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and campaign contributions from the 2012 cycle through November 2016 put political contributions at $38 million. Planned Parenthood is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so it cannot give to political campaigns, but its advocacy and political branches can.

In October 2014, as the nation was beginning to ramp up for the 2016 election cycle, Richards sought to frame her abortion support in a more personal context in a commentary published by Elle magazine titled, “Ending the Silence That Fuels Abortion Stigma.”

“I had an abortion,” Richards disclosed in the article. “It was the right decision for me and my husband, and it wasn’t a difficult decision.”

In a November 2015 Yahoo News interview with Katie Couric, Richards provided additional information about the abortion, saying it was done because she and her husband didn’t want to add a fourth child to their family.

“And we decided that was as big as our family needed to be,” Richards said in the interview, which was primarily focused on the possible future defunding of Planned Parenthood if the Republicans won the White House in 2016. “It wasn’t anything more dramatic than that.” 


The 2016 Election

While Richards is close to Hillary Clinton, a family friend, and spoke at the Democratic convention last year, it is safe to say that Dannenfelser, who took a chance on a controversial political neophyte, nevertheless bested Richards this time. Although Susan B. Anthony List did not endorse Trump during the Republican primary season, Dannenfelser threw her support behind Donald Trump in the general election, a move not universally popular.

“People I usually agree with were critical, and I’ll admit that it was painful — but not for very long,” said Dannenfelser.

She added that the release of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Trump could be heard making lewd comments about women, “complicated” the endorsement and was personally painful, but did not alter her support for Trump as the best candidate for the pro-life movement. “Once we got pro-life commitments, and compared to the other candidate, it was a no-brainer,” she said.

“I thought there was a certain cavalier attitude among many conservatives about what would happen if Clinton won, that the damage could be undone. I think that is false.”

Indeed, Trump’s choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate and, more recently, the successful confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court have given Dannenfelser no cause to reassess her fateful endorsement of a GOP outlier with a mixed record on pro-life issues.

“I think it would be hard to have a more pro-life administration,” she said.

Richards, for her part, campaigned for Hillary Clinton, as she had for the Democrats’ previous presidential nominee, Barack Obama. And after Trump’s victory at the polls, a fundraising letter from Richards acknowledged the devastating impact of the news on the abortion-rights movement, but still came out swinging.

“Let’s get all these words out of the way: Devastated. Angry. Heartbroken. Outraged. Shocked. Sad. Disgusted. Ashamed. Discouraged. Exhausted. Shattered.”

Then she moved on to galvanize Planned Parenthood supporters: “And now four more words — the most important ones: These. Doors. Stay. Open.”


The Health Care Legislation Battle

Now, both Dannenfelser and Richards are focused on the battle over health care legislation designed to repeal and replace Obamacare. While the House bill would defund Planned Parenthood, now it is up to the Senate to come up with its version of the bill — and it is not clear whether the Senate bill will provide similar language.

Dannenfelser believes that the Planned Parenthood behemoth isn’t as powerful as it was. Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress’ undercover investigation, which produced a series of videos on the alleged trafficking of fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood affiliates, badly tarnished the organization’s credibility.

Though Richards initially downplayed the investigation, she later apologized for comments made by her staff that were captured on video, but rejected any suggestion that the facilities harvested fetal body parts for profit.

Nor did Richards give an inch earlier during Planned Parenthood’s 2012 skirmish with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which briefly withdrew funding from the abortion provider only to restore it after a very public fight. Planned Parenthood won, Dannenfelser admitted, but at a price. “You can always win with a sledgehammer,” she said, “but all Planned Parenthood’s overreaches add up and reveal entitlement, arrogance and an inability to see the other side.”

And, although Planned Parenthood has other sources of funding besides the federal government, Dannenfelser said, “Like any business center — and that is what they are — if a large part of your budget gets taken away, that disrupts the business.”

And that probably is one thing on which Cecile Richards and Marjorie Dannenfelser can agree: Defunding Planned Parenthood would be a major disruption for the pro-abortion cause in the United States.


Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.