Over the past two decades, public opinion in the U.S. has shifted dramatically on many of what we call “cultural” issues. It’s a soft-sell term, an odd way of undercutting the power that issues like drugs, marriage and abortion have to drive the politics of so many Americans.
Since the early 2000s, we’ve seen opposition to same-sex marriage and legal marijuana use drop by around 25 percentage points.1 Public opinion on abortion, however, has been less fluid. In 2000, 53 percent thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent thought it should be illegal in all or most cases. In 2017, support for legalized abortion had ticked up to 57 percent, and opposition had ticked down to 40 percent. Those numbers reflect gradual shifts, far from the seismic changes we’ve seen on other cultural issues.
That relative stability has been maintained despite abortion’s being a contentious topic of debate for decades. And now one of that debate’s emblematic figures, Planned Parenthood’s leader, Cecile Richards, has announced that she’ll step down this year. Richards has overseen the organization while state legislators have imposed greater restrictions on access to abortion even as the public has gradually grown more supportive of abortion rights. Planned Parenthood has absorbed the energy of the women-centric protests of the past year but also a number of blows under Richards’s leadership.
No matter what side of the abortion debate you’re on, Richards, as the embodiment of her organization, has become a figure of huge political import. The scion of a political family — her mother was Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and Cecile Richards sports a sleek, modernized version of her mother’s bouffant crop cut — she has spent decades in the halls of American political organizing. She helped her mother campaign for governor, started a network of grass-roots organizations to get out the vote, and served as deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi. Her tenure at Planned Parenthood has been marked by campaigns to up the organization’s profile using, among other tactics, celebrity endorsements, as well as an effort to focus attention on the screenings, checkups and birth control services that Planned Parenthood provides, in addition to abortions.
For Republicans, Richards and her organization have served as useful foils over the past 12 years. Planned Parenthood’s high-profile endorsements, and Richards’s own prominence in media and politics (she has been named to the Time 100, has been profiled in Vogue and has proved to be a powerful force in Democratic presidential campaigns), have lent themselves to high-profile skewering as well. A New York Times article marking her departure quoted an opponent’s tweet calling Richards “deeply evil” and “a mass murderer.” Richards replied on Twitter that she was “over this paper.” But the vitriol for Planned Parenthood and Richards is very real. And during her tenure at the organization, GOP-dominated statehouses have passed legislation making it more difficult for women to secure Planned Parenthood’s most controversial health offering: abortions.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, has collected information on how the number of abortion providers nationally has changed over time.2 According to that data, the total peaked at about 2,900 in 1982, nine years after Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure. By 2005, a year before Richards took the helm of Planned Parenthood, the number of U.S. abortion providers had dropped to about 1,800. In 2014 — the most recent year in Guttmacher’s data set — there were 1,671 abortion providers.
Public opinion of Planned Parenthood has remained relatively favorable, although it has undeniably become a player in the hyperpartisan politics of the 21st century.
In 1993, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 81 percent of Americans had a “very” or “mostly” favorable view of Planned Parenthood. (There aren’t consistent year-to-year polls tracking the organization’s favorability rating.) By the early aughts, those high ratings for Planned Parenthood had started to come down — in 2000, 51 percent of registered voters said they had “warm” feelings toward it in a Democracy Corps/Institute for America’s Future poll. By 2009, 57 percent of registered voters said they had “warm” feelings toward the organization. And even in 2011, as Planned Parenthood became embroiled in federal budget negotiations, with some Republicans threatening to cut off federal funding for the organization, support for it remained steady. (To be clear, the federal government does not fund Planned Parenthood; the “defunding” controversy largely boiled down to an argument that the government shouldn’t reimburse Planned Parenthood for its treatment of patients who use government programs such as Medicaid. Federal funds cannot be used to fund abortions.) A Quinnipiac University poll in February of 2011 found that 53 percent of registered voters opposed ending the flow of federal payments to Planned Parenthood. The following year, a Quinnipiac poll showed Planned Parenthood had a 55 percent favorability rating among registered voters.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Planned Parenthood’s image was a 2015 controversy over the purported sale of fetal tissue by the organization. It is illegal to sell fetal tissue, but organizations may donate it and receive “reasonable” reimbursement fees for the cost of the donation — for instance, transporting the tissue. A number of state investigations found that Planned Parenthood had not sold fetal tissue (though the organization later opted to forgo the legal reimbursements when providing tissue for medical research), and two anti-abortion activists who had secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood employees and posted edited versions online were charged with illegal recording and conspiracy. Richards apologized for the “tone and statements” of the staff member who was recorded in the video. But the scandal was weaponized during the 2016 campaign, with GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina bringing up the tapes during primary debates and ads.
Polls from that time found that favorability ratings for Planned Parenthood were down. A January 2016 survey from CBS News and The New York Times showed that only 43 percent of people had a favorable view of the organization. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from June of that year found that 48 percent of registered voters had “very” or “somewhat” positive feelings toward Planned Parenthood. But by 2017, the public’s view of Planned Parenthood had improved — a March 2017 Fox News poll found the organization’s favorability rating to be 57 percent.
After years of stress tests, Planned Parenthood seems to be more or less at a natural equilibrium ahead of Richards’s departure. Her tenure is ending at a time when women’s marches against Trump have proved to be bright spots of grass-roots activity on the left and the Democratic Party hopes to win back at least one chamber of Congress. Richards will be leaving with a heightened political profile, and she has a memoir coming out in the spring. And her exit is happening in the midst of a national conversation about the structural inequalities facing American women.
Cecile Richards will likely not fade into the sunset.