After Cecile Richards, What’s in Store for Planned Parenthood?

Pro-life leaders acknowledge that Cecile Richards brought the abortion giant to its zenith, but trouble may be ahead.

People carry pro-life signs in front of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon located in Eugene.
People carry pro-life signs in front of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon located in Eugene. (photo: 2015 photo, Joshua Rainey Photography /

Around the time of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards says Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, made Richards a deal they thought the nation’s largest abortion provider would not refuse.

If Planned Parenthood split into two financially separate entities — a for-profit abortion business and a nonprofit that would cover health-related services that did not involve abortion — the Trump administration was prepared in exchange to allocate millions of dollars more to the nonprofit enterprise.

The newly retired Richards records this anecdote from January 2017 in her new memoir, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.

Richards rejected the offer out of hand, showing how essential she viewed abortion to Planned Parenthood’s mission: “There is no way what you are describing is going to happen.”

With Richards at the helm for 12 years, Planned Parenthood has navigated a swift and steady course to unprecedented political and social power. 

Richards has left Planned Parenthood at a zenith of fiscal strength and political might — a fact even her pro-life opponents acknowledge — but time may show Richards’ aggressive, capable leadership was forestalling an inevitable decline from the organization’s failure to rethink its abortion-dependent model.

Planned Parenthood has performed approximately 3.8 million abortions on unborn children in the 12 years of Richard’s leadership, according to annual reports. Her last year at the helm saw Planned Parenthood with $1.6 billion in net revenue, having received more than half a billion dollars each from the federal government and private philanthropy.

“It’s as financially powerful as it’s ever been,” Chuck Donovan, president of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, told the Register.

Richards’ feat is exceptional from a business perspective, Donovan added. Planned Parenthood has steadily lost clients and provided fewer core services — other than abortion. He likened it to an automobile manufacturer that drives up earnings by providing fewer models of cars.

Under Richards, Planned Parenthood went from providing 255,000 abortions (in the 2004-2005 fiscal year), approximately 21% of the U.S. abortion market, to 321,000 abortions (in the 2016-2017 fiscal year), approximately 35% of the U.S. abortion market. A conservative estimate of its abortion income in 2017 is $175 million.

Driving up abortion income is by design. Under Richards, Planned Parenthood mandated each of its 56 affiliates provide abortion as an essential service by 2013.

According to James Studnicki, Charlotte Lozier Institute’s vice president and director of data analytics, Planned Parenthood’s business model has helped stall the decline of abortion in the United States.

In a study published in the peer-reviewed Open Journal of Preventive Medicine, Studnicki and his co-author, John Fisher, found that whereas the U.S. abortion industry saw a 50% decline between 1995 to 2014, Planned Parenthood saw a 142% increase in abortions.

Studnicki told the Register that had Planned Parenthood followed the overall industry trends, it would have performed 3 million fewer abortions over that same period. He contends the reason Planned Parenthood bucked the trend is “supply-induced demand” — the abortion provider dispenses massive amounts of contraception and encourages sexual activity, so when its female clients get pregnant, the service Planned Parenthood recommends is its signature specialty: abortion.

“They are a purveyor of abortions — not merely a provider,” he said.


Political Hegemony

Richards has profoundly shaped the American political landscape on abortion over the past 12 years, establishing a tight grip over the Democratic Party and turning potential abortion scandals into abortion victories.

Richards swiftly began reversing the abortion movement’s declining political fortunes when she arrived in 2006. After soul-searching following their defeats in 2004, Democrats opted to de-emphasize abortion in 2006 and 2008 and ran pro-life candidates against pro-life Republicans in some districts. The strategy helped downplay the fundamental values conflict in those districts for pro-life voters, who were concerned about Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq and the economy, and helped Democrats recapture Congress and later extend their majority.

Richard Doerflinger, the former associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat, told the Register that Richards subsequently flexed Planned Parenthood’s political muscle in the health care debates — depriving pro-life Democrats of the statutory Hyde Amendment language they wanted in the health care bill and forcing them to settle instead for an executive-order compromise.

Pro-life groups felt betrayed, and the resulting elections in 2010 and 2012 saw the pro-life congressional Democrats — hung out to dry by pro-abortion leadership — nearly wiped out. In the House, Reps. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota remain. The Senate’s last three pro-life Democrats — Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania — are all up for re-election this year.

Although pro-life groups continue their quest to achieve a U.S. Supreme Court majority that will overturn Roe v. Wade, the abortion movement has an opposite goal: codifying Roe v. Wade, which would erase all the pro-life gains made at the federal and state level since 1973. This latest attempt is called the “Women’s Health Protection Act” —  federal legislation that would effectively outlaw abortion waiting periods, informed-consent laws, partial-birth abortion bans, and any requirement or limitation that “singles out abortion services or makes abortion services more difficult to access.” But without pro-abortion majorities in Congress, the legislation has proved unattainable. No matter which party was in power, the House of Representatives has always had a bipartisan pro-life majority.

But Planned Parenthood and its political allies are keen to change history, particularly during the Trump presidency — and have been disciplined in trying to purge pro-life Democratic candidates at the primary level. They have encouraged national leadership to brook no dissent on abortion and abandon pro-life Democrats that emerge to face Republican rivals. Leading pro-life Rep. Lipinski, the co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, fought off a bitter challenge in his own district.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register she believes history will continue to hold true and the American people will not vote a pro-abortion majority into the House.

Richards’ success in establishing Planned Parenthood’s hegemony over the Democratic Party’s leadership has been “devastating” for Democrats, according to Day. The party has lost 1,000 seats at the state level since the Affordable Care Act and has no ability to lead or shape an agenda such as paid parental leave, Medicaid for all and higher minimum wages.

This year, Democrats for Life is running just eight endorsed candidates in Congress.

“In pro-life districts, the pro-life vote matters,” Day said. Continuing to marginalize a third of Democratic voters across the country for the sake of abortion-rights progressives, she asserted, is the kind of mentality that drove voters to abandon Democrats and elect Donald Trump. Day pointed out that, during the 2016 race, Richards enjoyed a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton ran on the most extreme abortion platform ever, and Democrats suffered historic losses, with Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania going to Trump.

“If Democrats want to take the Senate back [in 2018], they have to allow these pro-life voices to be heard.”


Rule of Sound Bites

Doerflinger agreed Richards has been ruthless in making Planned Parenthood the gatekeeper of abortion orthodoxy. He noted that Richards thrives in an “age of sound bites” and public relations and burnished Planned Parenthood’s image as a women’s health organization, “not just an empire of abortion.”

He noted that Richards devastated the Susan G. Komen Foundation — which tries to save women’s lives through funding breast-cancer research and prevention — for declining to send Planned Parenthood $680,000 in breast-cancer prevention grants in 2012.

With Komen, “They were ruthless,” he said.

Richards raised an outcry, and within four days, Planned Parenthood had raised more than $3 million and also got the Komen grant reinstated. Having now angered people on both sides of the abortion debate, Komen lost 22% of its contributions, and the participation decline in its annual “Komen for the Cure” races cut the number of participating cities in half.

“It is the iron fist with the velvet glove,” Doerflinger said. “But sometimes the fist is showing too much.”

For Doerflinger, Richards’ masterstroke was defusing the House and Senate panels convened to investigate the undercover videos that alleged Planned Parenthood facilities were trafficking fetal tissue. The Center for Medical Progress videos’ disturbing exposé of Planned Parenthood’s abortion business provoked a fierce national discussion, but Richards went on a public-relations offensive, declaring Planned Parenthood was the victim of videos “heavily edited to deceive the public.”

At the same time, Doerflinger explained, Richards did not deliver a total victory. The videos had cemented in the public mind that abortion is a core part of Planned Parenthood, substantially weakening Richards’ narrative about Planned Parenthood being just a women’s health organization.


Questions of Sustainability

And Planned Parenthood’s rise may not be sustainable in the post-Richards era, because the business model is too narrow and the health market is changing, according to analysts. The Affordable Care Act has made contraception more ubiquitous and affordable, making Planned Parenthood’s role in this area obsolete. The wider availability of insurance means lower-income women have access to more health providers with comprehensive services, and therefore have more and better options than Planned Parenthood for services other than abortion.

Donovan said Planned Parenthood may come to regret rejecting the course marked by Pamela Maraldo, who was forced to resign as CEO of Planned Parenthood in 1995, after the board rejected her vision to make Planned Parenthood a broad women’s health care provider, moving away from its narrow focus on abortion and contraceptive and sexual health services. At the time Maraldo came on board, Planned Parenthood was laying off staff and dealing with multimillion-dollar deficits.

In more recent years, Planned Parenthood has been trying to reduce overhead costs by building mega-centers and replacing abortion doctors with the RU-486 abortion regimen.

William Bowman, dean of The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, told the Register that Richards’ tenure at Planned Parenthood saw its coffers filled with government money and “very significant sums from donors like George Soros and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

But Bowman said Planned Parenthood could be in trouble, as Trump has begun to choke off the flow of taxpayer funds. The White House is now reportedly mulling over whether to reinstate a Reagan-era rule, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, which would ban Title X funding from going to organizations that provide, promote or refer for abortion — Planned Parenthood would lose its 41% share of Title X clients, and tens of millions of dollars would be at stake. Bowman added significant reductions in government support would require more private donors to increase their support.

“This won’t go on forever, which may be one of the reasons Ms. Richards has chosen to step down while Planned Parenthood still appears to be flush with cash,” he said. “Leaner days may begin soon.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a

Register staff writer.