Planned Parenthood president speaks to Stanford on mobilizing for reproductive health in the 21st century

Cecile Richards explained the importance of looking to the next generation, the possibilities offered by new technologies and why Planned Parenthood is arguably stronger than ever.

Courtesy of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards portrait

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards

In 1916, when Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger began distributing birth control information, she was operating out of a neighborhood clinic – one that was raided and shuttered nine days after opening.

The atmosphere has been similar in recent years. The House of Representatives voted to completely defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, although federal funds were already barred from supporting the organization's abortion services. Earlier this year, the foundation Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would cut funding. But this time, the outcome was different.

A wave of Internet support led not only to a Senate defeat of the House's resolution and a reversal of the Komen foundation's decision, but an increase in funding from other sources and a greatly increased Internet profile for the organization.

"I got started as an organizer when you had to do everything on stone tablet and abacus," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in her talk at Stanford last week.

Reproductive rights

Richards' address was part of a panel on the reproductive rights movement in the 21st century, jointly hosted by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Tides, a philanthropic nonprofit. Speaking along with Tides President Melissa Bradley and Ruth Levine, director of the Hewlett Foundation's Global Development and Population Program, Richards exhorted the audience to "invest in the next generation" by using new technologies to reach youth.

"Reproductive health and the Internet have a unique relationship," Richards said, "because so many of our users are so young."

Planned Parenthood is currently America's most prominent source of reproductive health services. Richards was named one of Time magazine's "most influential people" in 2011 and 2012, and under her direction Planned Parenthood currently provides reproductive health care and information to nearly 5 million people a year.

The organization primarily performs Pap tests and breast exams, provides tests and treatments for sexually transmitted illnesses, and helps prevent unintended pregnancies through educational initiatives and the distribution of birth control.

Richards is now engaged in a campaign to reach Planned Parenthood's users in every possible medium. Its mobile website receives upward of 30 percent of the organization's total website traffic.

"But young people don't even want to go on a website," Richards said. "They just want to be told what they want to know."

In response, Planned Parenthood has launched online chat and text services to provide real-time responses to reproductive health questions.

Social media

According to Richards, the most significant area of expansion has been social media. The organization's "I stand with Planned Parenthood" Facebook campaign in response to the House defunding bill was instrumental in marshaling the Senate against the legislation. An explosion of pro-Planned Parenthood tweets in the aftermath of the Komen foundation's announcement was a major factor in the foundation's about-face less than a week later.

Rather than cutting services as a result of lost funding, Richards said, "We'll be doing more breast exams this year than ever in our history."

Richards and the other panelists clarified that Planned Parenthood did not stand alone in its efforts on behalf of reproductive health.

"The goal is figuring out how to take this phenomenal wave of catalytic support and say this is not just about Planned Parenthood," said Tides' Bradley.

As Levine of the Hewlett Foundation pointed out, reproductive health advocates are also looking beyond domestic issues. "Some of the organizations that are working hard to restrict reproductive rights in the U.S. are training people to do the same in other countries," she said. "But the more progressive the policies on domestic issues, the better the context for international work."

Max McClure, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-6737,