On April 20, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards came to Georgetown University to deliver a historic speech to a packed crowd of students. The significance of the event is found in the juxtaposition of Georgetown’s status as the oldest Catholic University in the country and Planned Parenthood’s title as the United States’ largest abortion provider.
Richards spoke at the invitation of the Lecture Fund, a non-partisan and student-run organization, which has previously hosted conservative commentator Ann Coulter and a slew of other notable guests. Her invitation was greeted with consternation by pro-life groups both on campus and around America, which considered the move an affront to the values of a supposedly Catholic and Jesuit university. Even Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl condemned Georgetown by stating that it was not “within the Catholic tradition for a university to provide a special platform to those voices that promote or support” issues contrary to the Vatican’s views, such as abortion. (Wuerl is celebrating a Mass of Life April 21 at Epiphany Catholic Church in Georgetown.)
Despite the onslaught of criticism, Georgetown University administrators defended the Lecture Fund’s decision on the grounds of freedom of expression, stating that they hoped to “provide a forum that does not limit free speech.”
As she walked on stage, Richards was greeted by a standing ovation. In her opening remarks, she was quick to thank the university for standing by the Lecture Fund and stated the importance of the protection of free speech. She went on to recount her career as an activist, which started in earnest in middle school, when she wore a black armband to protest American involvement in Vietnam. (She is the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards.) Later, she told the story of Planned Parenthood’s foundation by Margaret Sanger 100 years ago. Sanger was arrested for distribution of birth control devices, information and advice, which violated the Comstock Law prohibiting “articles of immoral use.”
Richards explained how far Planned Parenthood and its mission have come since 1916. An estimated 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has frequented one of Planned Parenthood’s more than 650 health centers across the nation. Annually, 2.5 million women and men (men make up 10 percent of the organization’s clientele) visit Planned Parenthood centers in the United States. Planned Parenthood prevents approximately 579,000 unintended pregnancies per year and provided over 270,000 Pap tests and breast exams. She notes that teen pregnancy rates are at a 40-year low, thanks in large part to her organization’s work providing sexual education over the internet to 6 million people.
During her address, Richards emphasized the importance of the members of the Millennial generation sitting before her. “I’m constantly blown away by young people tackling issues that have been taboo for years,” she remarked, later referring to the fight over sexual violence on college campuses and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the marginalization of the African American community. In addition, she praised the bravery of the scores of young volunteers and professionals who work in Planned Parenthood and embody the organization’s unofficial motto, “These Doors Stay Open,” when they unanimously decided to open the day after the shooting at a Planned Parenthood location in Colorado Springs in November 2015.
After her speech, Richards sat down for a conversation with two Georgetown students and Lecture Fund board members, Helen Brosnan and Elizabeth Rich. Together, they addressed issues including the recent Supreme Court case on whether recent legislation in Texas represents an “undue burden” on provision and attainment of safe and legal abortions. Richard unequivocally thinks that it does and that such laws merely masquerade under the “guise” of protecting women. She stated that in her ideal world the next president would work to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funds from being used for abortions.
In the first time in its history, Planned Parenthood has endorsed a presidential candidate during the primary season: former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Richards cited Clinton’s introduction of eight separate bills to expand access to reproductive healthcare during her time in the Senate as reason for Planned Parenthood’s support. “I can’t wait for the day partisan politics gets out of reproductive healthcare,” Richards said.
The three women on stage also touched on the recent allegations that Planned Parenthood was involved in the selling of body parts obtained through abortion. Richards denounced these accusations, referring to the footage that raised the concerns as “deceptively edited.” She reminded the audience that Planned Parenthood has been exonerated of any wrongdoing by a Texas grand jury and that the creators of the video have been indicted in their place.
A short question-and-answer session followed the conversation, during which Richards invited a pro-life student to visit a health center to see for herself what type of work is done there. An atmosphere of politeness prevailed throughout.
Outside the event, however, protesters gathered on a cordoned-off section of campus. They were led by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned pro-life activist, who delivered a speech at Dahlgren Chapel at 7:30 pm on the same day. The protesters’ banners and signs labeled Cecile Richards “a felon” and demanded the federal government switch funding from Planned Parenthood to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), which provide women’s health services but not abortion.
In an interview with the Georgetowner, Johnson stated that her goal was to “debunk the myth that women don’t have other options outside of Planned Parenthood” and called that claim “a blatant lie.” Johnson said that despite Planned Parenthood’s numerous health services, it only provides these to “eventually sell a product to a patient, and that is abortion.”
Johnson is the founder of And Then There Were None, an organization dedicated to helping abortion clinic workers leave the industry. According to Johnson, in the past three years, 218 clinic workers, including six full-time abortion doctors, have done just that.